Do As I Say! (or, Why We Don’t Get What We Want)

Mostly, the people around you want to please you. OK, there are a few meanies who just want to give you problems and headaches, but I’m willing to bet that 99% of the people you know really want you to be satisfied. And they want you to be pleased with whatever they give you – whether it’s a product, a service, or simply a communication. The world is not out to make your life difficult. At least most of the time.

So why don’t they give you what you want? Three reasons: pick one.

  1. You didn’t ask. You said, “It would be nice to know what the committee decided”, instead of saying, “Would you check and see what the committee finally voted for?” Or you said, “I wish we had a better plan for getting this complicated job done”, then silently hoped someone would step up and draft a better plan for that job. NOTE: Hinting is not a reliable method for getting what you want.
  2. You weren’t specific. You said, “Please make a restaurant reservation for 7 PM this Friday at Hyde Park”, then were mad when you got there and found out the reservation was for two people instead of five people (even though you think “He should have known”). Or you said, “Please get me a list of all the properties associated with each of our customers”, and were disappointed when she brought you the customer property list on a paper Word document instead of emailing an Excel spreadsheet (even though you’re sure there is an Excel spreadsheet around somewhere). NOTE: Communicate the important details about what, exactly, you want.
  3. You told them what to DO, but not what to DELIVER. “Doing” is an activity. “Delivering” is the act of turning over something after that activity is complete. Not the same thing. You ask Jane to make a phone call and get some specific information on a recent new item in your industry. But… Did you also want her to let you know what she learned? Did you want that information before 5:00 today? Jane can do exactly what you asked her to do and still fail to deliver. NOTE: Delivery is what completes an activity, so spell it out.

Perhaps people actually DO do what we say – we just aren’t good at saying exactly what we want from them. Hinting, being vague, or defining things only in terms of tasks or activities without clarifying the delivery of results – that’s what costs extra time and goodwill in our communications. Each of those errors demands that we make another request, or fix the misunderstanding (wait for a table for 5), or go get the result ourselves instead of having it brought to us at the time we wanted it.

Conversations organize our lives and relationships. It’s worth the bother to give more thought to the specifics of our requests – and what we want delivered back to us – to make everybody happier. Including you.

Where Accountability Comes From – How to Support People in Honoring Their Word

Many people are disappointed to discover that not everyone actually does what they promise. Several students recently argued for the “personality theory” of accountability, saying that some people are just accountable by nature, and others are not.

If you want people around you to be more accountable around you, how do you make that happen? Let’s assume that the other person clearly understands what is expected from them – they know what the task is and what the result should look like. If that’s true, then all it takes is some productive communication.

First conversation: Your request, their assignment. “Dave, will you have the monthly Team Report ready before our Friday morning meeting with the VPs?”

  • If the answer is yes, you have created an agreement for something – a product, service, or communication – to be done or delivered, by a specific time and for a specific purpose.
  • If the answer is no, you have a debrief conversation: “What is in the way for you to get that done?” This is where you listen, perhaps come up with a Plan B, and maybe getting some help for Dave or assigning it to someone else.
  • If the answer is a counter-offer, like they can’t get it done before the Friday meeting, you either accept the new timeline or you go to a Plan B, maybe changing the agenda for the meeting.

Second conversation: Confirm the agreement. This is important, but doesn’t have to be strict or formal. All you want is to make sure they know that you are counting on them to honor their word. “Great, Dave. So you’ll get what you need from Shirley and have that on my desk no later than 8:15 Friday morning?” (This is where Dave at least needs to nod his head.)

Third conversation: Complete the agreement, whatever happens.

  • If Dave delivered, a thank-you and a little appreciation is in order. “Good for you, Dave. I was able to get the VPs updated at the Friday meeting because you delivered the Team Report. Thanks for that.”
  • If Dave didn’t deliver, you need to set up the full Closure Conversation. “Uh oh, Dave. I was caught short in the meeting without the report you said you would give me. We need to talk. In a nutshell, we need to look at what happened and how to make sure that never happens again. Are you available to talk now, or should I come back later today?”

Accountability is about keeping track of what you promise others and what they promise you. But that’s only the first half of it. You also have to follow up after the success or failure of delivery on every promise.

One manager, an MBA student, said, “I shouldn’t have to do that follow-up stuff. They should keep their word.” The professor, an older man and a close friend of mine (J) said, “Yes, and I should have more hair. As a manager, you can drop the word “should” from your vocabulary. It won’t help you.”

If you want more accountability, there are 3 conversations to have. It doesn’t take too long for people to get the idea that making an agreement with you is something that deserves their full attention. And that is a good thing.

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.

Why We Don’t Put Deadlines into Our Requests  

I remember talking with a nutritionist many years ago, and she was advising me on how to place an order in a restaurant to get the meal I wanted. “You have to ask,” she insisted. “Ask them to put the dressing on the side so they don’t drown your salad. Ask them for fresh vegetables instead of their special potato-cheese-bacon side dish.”

“That would make me a picky eater,” I explained to her, actually feeling the embarrassment of a childhood moment when I was told that was a really bad thing to be. Now I’m an older lady, and quite able to fend for myself in a restaurant. There’s nothing wrong with asking, especially now that everybody does it: gluten free, sugar-free, fat-free.

I talked with some people yesterday in a really cool company near us. One person said she didn’t want to be so specific in requests – being very clear about what she wanted, or adding deadlines – because she didn’t want to be “pushy”. We can assume that she doesn’t always get what she wants, or get it on time.

I’m hoping she’ll start to practice making good requests. That self-consciousness about what “they” will think of us if we tell them exactly What we want, When we want it, and Why it matters to us – is understandable. But it’s also useful to see it from another perspective: when we give people clear direction, they have a chance to “win” with us. Plus, we might also be developing them to communicate more clearly with other people in their lives. You do know that people learn from you, right?

I remember the first time I asked for “dressing on the side” (in a restaurant that reliably drenched their salads). The waitress said, “Oh, thanks for reminding me. This is my third day here, and I keep forgetting to ask people about that. Also, do you want some bread? Some people do and some don’t.”

Go ahead, ask people for what you want. Not just the people who work for you, but everybody. Even people in other departments, or higher up in the hierarchy than you are. Ask! Use the 3 W’s: What, When, Why. Most people really do like you, and they want you to be pleased with them too.

The Power of Promising: Listener + Do + Due 

There’s this Ugly Chore that has been lingering in my life for way too long now: the 6 boxes of files left from my management consulting career. When you retire from your own business, what do you do with all that stuff? I had a plan: write it up in a bunch of “how-to” articles and make those ideas available to others who might want to put the ideas to use. Now, a year later, everybody I know – family, friends, and neighbors – has surely tired of hearing about this genius plan of mine.

Last week, I thought up a new way to go through those boxes, quickly get rid of what I don’t want, and make little files of a few ideas worth saving for potential articles. I tested it out, and it worked – now I have 1 bag of paper to recycle, 1 empty box, and a few skinny files with article names on them. Yay!

Looking at the other 5 boxes, I had the same old feeling of “I don’t want to”. But I have a work-around to bypass that particular voice in my head. I make a promise to somebody who will want to hear that I was successful. So I told Ray, a former partner in managing a conference, that I would have the remaining 3 client file boxes emptied by the end of this week, and the 2 reference file boxes gone by the end of the week after that. A promise to Ray is nothing to take lightly – he’s a guy who pays attention when someone gives their word. So now I have boxed myself in to finishing the Boxes Project.

Not everybody has a guy like that in their lives, but everybody has someone – a Listener – who will hear to a Do + Due promise. That’s when you make a promise to someone (“Listener”) that you will take an action (“Do), and then also promise a date by when you’ll report back to them on your results (“Due”). For me, it’s a good way to practice honoring my word and exercise my integrity muscle. It’s also a way to get myself into action on something I’ve been putting off.

By February 12th, all 6 of those boxes will be empty, and the recycle truck will get everything that’s just taking up space. Completion is a wonderful thing! So is the power of a promise for action and results with a self-imposed deadline to report on what happened. Even the nastiest tasks will have to bow to that!

Test it out: maybe pick one thing you don’t want to do. Find your Listener, promise what you’ll Do, and promise a Due-date for your follow-through. If you take me up on this, it would be fun it you’d let me know what you learn.

Want Something in 2016? Get Specific.

I remember many years ago telling my boss that I was frustrated with my work, and that what I really wanted to do with my life was to travel and to write. He had the perfect response.

“You already do that,” he said. “You commute almost 20 miles each way to work every day, and you write up analyses and reports on client problems and solutions. Congratulations! You have reached your goal!”

That’s the first time I realized that I would need to be more specific about what I wanted. General categories like “travel”, or clichés like “be successful” simply do not create a path to a desirable future – and they can be fulfilled by commuting to a job or getting a pat on the back.

I thought of that again a little while ago, when I remembered saying that I was going to create a “Writing Life”. I was frustrated with the stack of “distractions” on my desktop and in my email in-box: PowerPoints to be written up for a presentation I’m giving; a promotion to write up for one of our online products; a request to write a reference letter for a friend; notes to friends who sent me holiday cards; revising a section of my husband’s academic paper on leadership – etc. etc. etc.

It’s all writing, right? Is this what the Writing Life looks like? It isn’t what I had hoped.

We think it’s easy to make promises to do or deliver something, or to make requests for resources or support. But when we are not specific about exactly what we want, when we want it, and why it matters, we can’t have a Performance Conversation. When we are not specific about who to communicate with, where we are going, or how we want to get there, we can’t have an Understanding Conversation.  What we have is a wish.

I was not creating a clear destination, nor committing to a path and process for the Writing Life. I was wishing.

So now I’m going to spend some time getting clearer about what I mean by a “Writing Life”. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”. I would add that the unintentional life isn’t worth much either. Serendipity is fine, but it’s not a substitute for aiming, steering, or directing – those things require specifics.

I would rather “lead” my life than to drift with the current, so it’s time to get specific about the future I intend to create. Many thanks to that boss for his wise words that have lasted so many years!

Time to Talk? Efficiency vs. Effectiveness

The idea that time is “speeding up” is very popular, says the latest issue of The Economist – and they also say it’s very hard to prove. But the growth in computing power, along with management tools that increase efficiency by reducing delays in processes, have made it seem like time itself really is going faster.

Lonnie is a senior manager with a time complaint. He said, “I had a schedule that was out of control. I’ve asked my assistant for help, but she can’t seem to handle it. So I decided to be more efficient with my time.” Here’s what he had done by the time I met him, 3 months after he started practicing “efficiency”:

  • Tracked where he was spending his time: over 30% of his day was spent on communications by email, phone, and in meetings.
  • Identified the work he felt was really the most important, and that needed more attention: the most neglected high-value job was preparing product & program plans and proposals for his VPs, peers, and staff.
  • Practiced “efficiency” by scheduling his product development planning as the first job of the day, cutting down on his meeting attendance, and leaving the email to be handled after lunch.

This helped him meet some deadlines, especially for the VPs, but, he said, explaining why he needed help, “I still have much email, too many unnecessary appointments and meetings, and I’m interrupted all the time.”  I asked Lonnie about his assistant. Why wasn’t she able to filter the email and appointments and reduce his interruptions? Had he really made a good request?

“I told her I wanted help with my schedule problems,” he said. “But nothing changed.” Uh oh. He “wanted help”? We designed a real request, and he practiced saying it before he delivered it.

“Melissa, I request that tomorrow you start reviewing and screening my emails three times a day, eliminating all meetings on my schedule where I am not absolutely needed to attend, and preventing any phone or drop-by interruptions in my work between 8:00 and 10:15 AM. Is that something you can do?”

Lonnie made the request, and was surprised by Melissa’s response. “She gave me a big smile and told me she was glad to know specifically what would help me get hold of my schedule, and that of course she would start doing those things.”

Two weeks later, Lonnie was out from under the burden of calendar chaos, and had learned the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency: improving the process for getting things done; Effectiveness: getting the right jobs done to meet goals. He laughed at himself, saying, “Of course, if I had made an effective request to Melissa in the first place, I could have saved 3 months of being Efficiently Ineffective”.

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.

Attitude Can Cause Blindness and Ignorance

 

After years of saying that a consultant’s job is not to change people’s attitudes, I might need to eat my words. Here’s what I learned from reviewing a Harvard Business Review case: a bad attitude can blind an employee – even a good one – from seeing who to communicate with and who needs certain information.

The issue was that an employee – let’s call him Roger – was appointed to lead a team-building program. The goal was to improve communications between two groups who were not communicating. I’ve seen this happen often in organizations: engineers, maintenance, IT, or operations people just don’t speak the same language, so they just don’t bother trying to communicate. Roger’s assignment was to improve the situation with a team-building program.

Roger was going to keep doing his regular job and do the team-building program too. That meant he’d keep reporting to his regular boss, but for the team-building project he would report to Eileen, who was the VP reporting to the company president about internal improvements.

But Roger didn’t like Eileen: there’s the attitude. So when he started leading the team-building program, and he started hearing from the participants about problems with the company’s processes and equipment, he told them to fix those problems themselves. “Go back to your work areas and use these team-building ideas to solve those problems,” he said.

What he should have also done, of course, is to make a good list of the problems, locations, and people involved, then report all that to Eileen. Instead, he literally ignored her – that’s the ignorance. True, Eileen might not have cared about solving those problems, but she deserved to know. Roger’s lack of respect for Eileen’s competence (i.e., his attitude) kept him from even considering communicating with her. So what do we do about attitude-induced ignorance?

I’d say that when Eileen delegated the training program to Roger, she needed a better agreement with him about what kind of feedback he should provide. She had asked him to keep track of the number of people who attended each session, because she wanted to be able to report that more than 80% of the employees in both units had attended the training. But she hadn’t said anything about what other feedback she would like.

If Eileen had noticed that all human beings come equipped with attitudes and mental roadblocks, she might have requested some useful feedback on how to really improve relations between these two groups. But then again, maybe Eileen had an attitude too. So I will keep supporting people to make clearer, smarter agreements. Working with attitudes is very sticky and it doesn’t cure ignorance.

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.