Does Authority Lead to Reduced Communication?

Having authority can contribute to the very problems managers believe are solved by that authority.  Why, because when managers have authority they don’t think they need to communicate as much.  This is particularly true when managers confront threats to the successful completion of projects they are managing.

Years of research indicates that managers who have authority over resources important to subordinates (e.g., pay, job assignments, vacation time) assume they do not have to persuade or convince subordinates of their assessment of a situation.  Managers are often blind to the fact that subordinates see things from a different point of view.  According to a recent study published in Organization Science, one result of this blindness is that when managers with authority confront a threat to the successful completion of a project, they engage in fewer and less immediate (e.g., face to face) communications than managers lacking that same authority.

In reviewing the results of the study, what is particularly interesting is that when compared to their counterparts without authority, managers with authority do not engage in Understanding Conversations or use complete Performance Conversations.  The study indicates that managers with authority do not explain why a particular event is a threat, explore how it might be resolved, or address subordinates’ concerns regarding the impact changing their work to resolve the threat may have on other work (an Understanding Conversation).  Furthermore, rather than get good promises from their subordinates, they assume their subordinates will “just do it”.  Unfortunately, 72% of the time the managers’ communications regarding a threat are ineffective and their subordinates do not respond as expected, requiring additional communication.  This additional communication can result in a loss of credibility and diminish their reputation.

One conclusion from this study is that managers use authority as an excuse for reducing their communication on the assumption that their subordinates will automatically accept what they are told and act accordingly.  We know from our work with The Four Conversations, however, that there is no substitute for appropriate and complete communication.

Deadlines – A Powerful Tool for Accomplishment

Do you use deadlines when you make requests?  Deadlines are one of the most powerful tools for accomplishment you can use.  They give people information that allows them to organize and prioritize the work they have.  Without due dates, people aren’t sure when they should work on things.  As a result, work gets postponed, no matter how urgent or important it might be.

Deadlines are specific – they tell people the exact date and time by when you want to receive something or start something.  For example, “by Thursday at 9AM” or “at 10AM on March 23, 2012”.  Telling people you want things “ASAP” (as soon as possible), “when you get a chance”, “first thing”, or “at the next opportunity” is not a deadline.  Although you may have a clear idea of when you mean, they don’t and won’t know how to schedule their work.  Giving people a specific “by when” reduces the chances of being told later “I didn’t know you wanted it then.”

Deadlines increase accountability – theirs and ours.  If you are going to give a deadline, be prepared to receive what is due at the time its due, don’t be “out of the office”.  The accomplishment value of deadlines is diminished if people believe you are not serious or if you give false ones (saying you need it by a date when you really don’t).

Deadlines are a tool that can dramatically increase the accomplishment and success of both parties.  If you aren’t using them, try adding them to your requests.

Effective Workplace Communication Requires Using the Right Conversation

How often have you heard (or made) one of the following complaints (or some variation thereof):

  1. We have a real communication problem here.
  2. They don’t tell us anything, and when they do tell us, it’s not much.
  3. They never give us enough information.

The absence or inadequacy of communication is one of the most frequently voiced complaints in the workplace.  Perhaps the only complaint more frequently voiced is some version of “there is no leadership”.  Interestingly, the complaint is always from people on the receiving end, never on the sending end.  In fact, if you talk to leaders and managers, they are likely to tell you they are “always communicating” with people.

So, when it comes to communication in the workplace we have this interesting conundrum: leaders and managers insist they are communicating, but people on the receiving end insist they are getting no or poor communication.  Is this simply an issue of misperception?  In some cases, but misperception does not account for all of it.  In fact, my research and experience indicates that misperception accounts for very little.  The bigger factor is that managers don’t distinguish among the types of conversations they are using and whether they are using the appropriate conversations.

There are numerous articles that offer recommendations on how to improve workplace communication.  One article, for example, proposes that managers change the style, method, content, timing, and frequency of their communications.  Another article recommends such things as avoid gossiping, getting overly personal, or raising controversial subjects.  Although these recommendations all contribute to more effective workplace communication, they all ignore one simple fact – not all conversations are the same.  If managers use the wrong type of conversation, or use the right one inappropriately, getting the style, content, etc. right won’t make any difference.  They will still be ineffective.

Many people erroneously believe that understanding is the source of action.  Understanding may be necessary for action (e.g., you can’t sum a column of numbers if you don’t know addition), but it is not sufficient to get people to act (e.g., knowing how to add doesn’t mean you will tabulate the column of numbers).  A result of this belief is that considerable attention is given to trying to improve the chances people will understand our communications.  The assumption being that if people clearly understand and comprehend the communication, then they will behave in the desired manner.

Check it out for yourself.  How many times have you “explained things again” when people didn’t do what was expected?  Or how often have your heard (or said) something like “What didn’t they understand?” or “How could they not understand this?”  I have found in my work with managers that when they don’t get what they expect, their explanations frequently become longer and more detailed.  They earnestly believe that people didn’t do what was expected because they didn’t understand something.  And if the longer explanation doesn’t work, managers blame the other person for being lazy, stupid, uncommitted, incompetent, etc.  Rarely do managers consider that they may be using the wrong conversation to get what they want, or that if they are using the right conversation, they are using it inappropriately. Understanding is only one of four types of conversations used by managers.

There is only one type of conversation that reliably gets people into action and that’s a performance conversation.  Performance conversations involve making requests and getting promises.  Although there are a variety of ways (styles?) one can go about making requests and getting promises, they all boil down to asking the other person to take an action or produce a result within a specified time period.  For example, “Will you schedule a brainstorming session of our lead designers for the last week of April?”

If what you want to accomplish is people taking a specific action or producing a specific result within some time period, then the appropriate conversation to use is a performance conversation.  On the other hand, if you what you want is to inform people, develop a plan for accomplishing a goal or objective, or have them understand something, then the appropriate conversation to use is an understanding conversation.  However, if you use an understanding conversation on the assumption it will lead to people taking specific actions or producing desired results, you and the people with whom you have the conversation are likely to be very disappointed.  They will not know what actions or results you want or by when, and you will not get the actions and results you expect.

And what do you think the result of this disappointment will be?  Well, among other things, they are likely to say “We weren’t told”, “The communication wasn’t clear”, or “We weren’t given the right information.”  In other words, they will blame “poor communication”.  You, on the other hand, may say something like “I don’t get it.  I told them everything they needed.  What more do they want?”  In other words, you will say there was sufficient communication.

Sounds like the very conundrum we started with, doesn’t it?


Be Zealous About Keeping Agreements

Effective performance conversations depend on people keeping their agreements and doing what they said they would do.  Encourage people to respect the idea that keeping agreements matters.

Keeping agreements is the foundation for effective performance conversations.  Every time we say Yes to a request, we have created an agreement with someone.  It might be as simple as agreeing to make reservations for a lunch meeting or as complex as developing a production plan or installing a computer system.  But in any case, we’re on the hook for doing something the minute we nod our head or mutter, “Yeah, okay.”

Those agreements matter. People count on us to do what we say, and if we don’t do it they’ll have a judgment about our reliability that won’t serve us well in the future.  Similarly, we depend on others to do what they say they’ll do. If you’ve ever had to follow up on an undelivered shipment, or an unanswered question, or an unpaid invoice, you know agreements are important to the fabric of life.

We don’t trust people who don’t keep their agreements.  And we lose credibility when we don’t keep ours.  Even if people have a really good explanation for what happened, we’re still left with the consequences of their dropping the ball.

When you are working to keep a promise, any missed agreement is a potential for disaster. To make a timeline, you can’t afford to have people take their promises casually.  A climate of accountability is essential for meeting deadlines and depends on having a positive regard for keeping agreements.

When agreements are broken, be zealous about getting to the bottom of what happened so you can learn what’s needed to avoid similar situations in the future.  It’s another way to honor your promises and strengthen your credibility.

Good Promises Convert Expectations into Agreements

Don’t risk being held to account for things you don’t know about. Take the time to find out what people really expect you to do, and what they expect you to deliver.  If they don’t tell you, ask.  It’s part of getting and giving a good promise and is key to effective performance conversations.

I recently had a conversation with a manager who was disturbed by her inability to meet the expectations of those “higher up” (her term).  They would give her assignments and then, when she would complete them, they would point out something that was missing they expected to be included. Has this ever happened to you? Although it is easy for this manager to blame the “higher ups” for not being clear, she shares some of the responsibility for not finding out what they wanted.  Even when you aren’t given a good request, you can have a performance conversation to convert hidden expectations into clear agreements.

If you look at each of your current assignments, are you confident you are 100% clear about what is expected of you in every case?  Is everyone else involved in the assignment also 100% clear about what you expect of them?  Or are you assuming you’ll figure it out, or they already know?

Assumptions and expectations are “silent standards”. We take a big risk when we assume that everyone knows what to do. If creativity is desirable, it’s fine to give a general direction. But if there are specific creative requirements that matter, you’ll want to get them spelled out.

Take the time to spell things out. What should the final product look like? What are the components? When do they need to be ready? Are there other people who should be involved and if so, who?  Is there a particular method or process that should be used or avoided? What restrictions and specifications apply? Don’t take a chance: assume nothing is obvious.

Remember: everyone associated with an assignment has expectations and assumptions.  Some people expect you to ask for their advice, others want to be kept informed, and some only want to be involved in an emergency.  And, they expect you to operate according to these expectations even if you don’t know them!  Ask people to take time with you to spell out their expectations.  Yes, you have to ask.

Sometimes people are afraid to ask because it might make them look less competent or capable, or they don’t want to deal with an unpleasant reaction.  One way around this is to say something like “I want to be sure you get exactly what you want and in order to do that, I want to be sure I understand the assignment clearly.  I don’t want to complete it only to find out there is something missing that you wanted included.  Could we take a few more minutes to clarify some things?” It is better to risk some potential discomfort upfront than it is to risk damaging your reputation by not delivering what people expect.

Getting clear creates a common ground in that both of you know what is expected.  This has the effect of turning an expectation into an agreement and gives you (and them) the opportunity to say whether you can or cannot do what they ask – a key for any good promise. If something new comes up later, you can always say, “I didn’t agree to that, but I’m willing to consider it.”  What you want to avoid is having to say, “I didn’t know you needed that,” or, “I thought this is what you wanted”.

Reduce your risk by taking time to unspoken expectations into clear agreements that everyone can see and understand.  Move ambiguous requests into good promises by clarifying expectations.

“High Priority” Isn’t A Deadline

Laurie and I recently conducted a training program on The Four Conversations for a group of project managers.  Since most of the managers were from the same organization, they all encountered the same problem when given an assignment.  Rather than being told a due date or deadline by when the assignment was to be completed, they are told “this is high priority” and expected to do it.  “High Priority” isn’t a deadline and it doesn’t support getting good promises, a key to effective performance conversations.

In the absence of a deadline or due date, all you have is a ‘whenever’.  A ‘whenever’ is something that gets done… whenever they bug you enough for it, whenever you find time to work on it, whenever you feel guilty enough to do it, etc.  ‘Whenever’ is stressful, an ever-looming, unknown burden to be carried around.  ‘Whenever’s’, particularly from bosses, are fear generators – we worry about when it will come due, anxious it will be asked for before we have completed it, concerned about its impact on all the other work we have, and afraid of what will happen if we don’t get it done when they want it (even though we don’t know when that is).

Contrary to a ‘whenever’, a deadline is a tool for accountability and accomplishment.  Deadlines provide information that allows both the person giving it and the person receiving it to know how to plan and do their work.  Deadlines make both the person giving the assignment and the person getting it accountable for getting work done by a particular time, rather than whenever either feels like it should be done.  When we say this is “high priority”, we avoid our responsibility for doing the work necessary to determine by when it really needs to be done.

In some organizations, a “high priority” assignment means it is to be completed within a well known period of time, for example, 24 hours.  In those cases, giving someone a “high priority” assignment is tantamount to saying “Do X within 24 hours”.  But in organizations where “high priority” is not well defined, where managers use it indiscriminately, saying an assignment is “high priority” conveys no useful information for when it should be done, only dread and worry.

In the training session, managers from the one organization pointed out that managers are now saying things like “This is priority 1-A” in an attempt to distinguish their high priority assignment from all the other high priority assignments.  Who are they kidding?  All they are doing is adding confusion while undermining their own credibility and any chance of real accountability.

Do yourself and others a favor, make clean requests and give a due date.

[reprinted from with permission]

Make Counteroffers When Necessary

When given a deadline you know you really cannot meet, propose an alternative you can meet – that’s called making a counteroffer.

If you don’t counteroffer when you know something cannot be done, you’re setting up yourself and others for failure.

What do you do when someone asks you to do something you know you can’t get done? Do you say “Yes” and hope things will work out somehow?  Or say “Yes” knowing you’ll deal with the consequences later?  Or say “Yes” and break other promises for on-time performance?

A better way to deal with the situation is to make a counteroffer.  Counteroffers are one way to respond to the requests that make up Performance Conversations.  A counteroffer is where you say, “I can’t do A, but I can do B”. For example, say, “I can’t get it for you by 5:00 PM today, but I can get it for you by 3:00 PM tomorrow.” Another type of counteroffer is, “I can’t do A unless B happens”.  For example, say, “I won’t be able to do that today unless we can extend the due date on Project B by at least a day.”

Counteroffers communicate two important things. First, that you are not currently in a position to accept their request. And second, that you are willing to work something out.  It says that you will be responsible for what you promise, and it prevents the need for excuses later on.

To be effective, counteroffers must be made with integrity.  You can’t just say, “I’m too busy,” or, “I don’t have time.” A counteroffer is an alternative promise that includes a request. You are offering to do something, and you are re-negotiating the due dates of one or more other projects.

Counteroffers can be very effective.  You don’t always get all the leeway you ask for, but that should remind you to ask for as much as you think you need. It’s worth giving them a try, even if you think the people around you are pretty inflexible. You just might be surprised.