That Difficult Client Talk – Part I

Dear Reggie,

First, the bad news. You’ve been blaming your staff and technical teams for not doing their jobs well, but you have not considered that you might be the problem. So I’m here to tell you that you are breaking almost every rule of good management. I’m telling you because you said to me, “I want my workplace to work. Help me fix it.” So I am pointing to the heart of the problem: You.

Second, the good news. There’s a path to being a better manager. In your case, the path has three steps, but I’m only going to deal with the #1 item right now. Here it is:

Stop Managing People! They don’t like it, and it doesn’t work anyway. So there. A few important points:

  • Get permission before you coach somebody. You assume that your people want your coaching. That’s a bad assumption – you need to check with them before you coach them. Tell them what kind of coaching you think they need, then ask if they want you to give them some guidance. If they aren’t enthusiastic about it, then let it go. Or find out what kind of support they would prefer.
  • Don’t play psychologist. Dealing with people’s personal feelings, experiences, and conflicts is not your specialty. And it’s not what management is about. You are a technical guy, running a technical department. Human relations are not your strong suit. Get a person from HR to help you sort that stuff out, and work with them to learn from them.
  • Take responsibility for establishing clear assignments. The assignments you give people are vague and incomplete. Every assignment needs to be associated with a clearly stated goal, and maybe even some sort of measure for success. Every assignment needs enough discussion to have confidence that the other person – let’s call him/her Robin – understands exactly what you want, need, and expect. And, finally, every assignment needs a deadline.

Start managing agreements. An agreement begins with you making a request for a product, service, or result. Then, at some point, Robin makes a promise to produce or deliver what you’re asking, though perhaps with some modifications (due to that discussion you had with him/her).  Request + Promise = Agreement.

Then, Reggie, you follow through. Stick with managing the agreement, not Robin. Check in at pre-arranged times and places – by email, at the weekly meeting, etc. – to ask for a status update, as in “Is everything on track with Project X for the September 17 deadline?”

Unless you’re at the water cooler or the coffee machine, you don’t ask, “How’s life?” or “Did you have a good weekend?” or “Why the long face?”. Wading into the personal is fine for personal time, but keep your eye on the agreement in a more formal way when you’re on the work clock.

Thanks for listening, Reggie. You wanted my coaching, so there is Part I. Give it some practice for the coming week, and I’ll check back with a few of your team members next Thursday to ask them how you’re doing.

After that, I’ll stop by your office and we’ll both take a look at how well you are doing your job.

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.

Integrity and Reliability – They’re Related

A local college teacher called last night and asked if I had another recommendation for a technical support person to help with his Public Speaking class, because the first guy I recommended wasn’t working out. Here’s how that dialogue went…

Me: “What happened to Ed? I thought he was your guy for that?”

Teacher: “Ed is great, but he’s not reliable. I have classes starting again this week, and he was supposed to come to campus yesterday morning to help with the computer setups for the classroom. I have 23 students who will be here tomorrow morning, and I spent all day yesterday – and far into the evening too – trying to get everything ready. He bailed out on me – and asked to reschedule – at the last minute. He doesn’t understand my scheduling situation with classes.”

Me: “I don’t get it. You told me Ed was a high-integrity guy. This is news to me.”

Teacher: “He is high-integrity. I would trust him with my bank account, and with almost anything. He’s totally honest, and does good work. But this is the third time he’s pulled the plug less than an hour before he’s scheduled to be here. His “emergencies” always leave me with a problem, because by the time he notifies me, I’ve already made arrangements that box me in to our agreed schedule, then he goes and changes it!”

The two of us solved the problem – we each looked through our contacts and found a backup person who could come on short notice for future “emergency” help to get computers ready for a class demonstration, in case Ed had to cancel again. But it left me thinking about integrity and reliability. Are they really two different things? An “Integrity Seminar” I took suggests they’re not.

Integrity is not only about being an ethical and good person – it’s about my relationship to my word. If I say I’ll make a pizza for you, or that I’ll be at your place by 5:15, then you can count on me to do that. And if, for any reason, I’m not going to keep one of those “promises”, you can count on me to let you know in advance, and/or to clean up any problems it creates for you when I break my word. It sounds like Ed didn’t realize he was causing the teacher a problem.

I’m sorry that Ed wasn’t reliable enough to gain my teacher friend’s confidence, but at least he called his client to reschedule. I suspect that my friend was partly reacting to how upset his wife was when he didn’t come home for dinner because he was setting up for his class. Still, reliability matters for Ed’s reputation, and he could possibly lose a client. Fortunately, the students didn’t notice any problem: their computers were good to go for the class this morning.

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.

A Tip for Smarter Staff Meetings

 

A manager I know came up with the best idea I ever saw for having her staff meetings be short and smart. Her name is Sharon, and she has a staff of 14 direct reports. I borrowed her idea myself when I managed a conference, and I have recommended it to every manager I ever worked with. She had some rules, of course.

Rule #1. Always have the meeting in a room with a whiteboard or a flip chart.

Rule #2. Write the group goal at the top of the whiteboard or flip chart.

Rule #3. Track the assignments for each staff person – everything they are responsible for, including projects, tasks, communications, etc. – as well as when they are due. Add any clarifying notes as needed.

Here’s what Sharon’s meeting room whiteboard looked like (shortened for sanity’s sake):

Our Goal

Customers Pleased, Employees Valued, and Bottom-line Business Growth for the Future

Staff Names

Assignment(s) – Project, Task, etc. Due Date

Notes

Aaron 1. Newsletter out
2. Staff review of customer survey report
1st week/mo.
July 8
Work with Karen
Joan 1. Billing program updates
2. Software training manuals ready
July 9
July 10
IT group
Zack 1. Budget review and approval
2. New carpet in front entry
July 10
July 3
Contractors

Sharon used this display as her meeting agenda. At the start of each meeting, the group went through the list and reviewed each person’s assignments and what they had to say about how things are going – problems, breakthroughs, calls for help. Sharon always asked them to say what’s next, or she would let them know what she saw was needed by the next meeting. Then the board would be updated for next week’s meeting.

There was one last rule that Sharon kept as a way for people to be related in a way that she called “our non-agenda life”:

Rule #4. Use either the first or the last 10-15 minutes for an update on “Human Being News”. This was the part of the meeting where a few people would speak up about something that was either good, bad, or exciting in their personal or home life. It didn’t take long, and it added a dose of humanity to the business of producing results.

Sharon’s meetings worked – everyone knew what everyone else was working on and stayed on track with the work to be done. The meetings had a good energy and value for each participant, and her department was one of the most pleasant and productive workplaces I’ve ever seen.

Productive Communication: Your Best Goal-Getting Tool

I just looked up “management communication” to see how it is described in the world today. I’m a woman with an undergrad degree in Psychology, and two grad degrees in Engineering, and I admit to being horrified.

The American Management Association has a communication training on “Getting Results Without Authority”, subtitled “How do you influence other people who don’t work for you to get the results you need?” It covers:

  1. Personal power: Your source of influence and authority over others, independent of the position you hold (based on theories from psychology and sociology);
  2. Reciprocity: Your ability to behave in a friendly manner to build positive relationships that will encourage others to do things for you (from social psychology);
  3. Personal style in relationships: Your responses to psychology quizzes about whether you are secure, anxious, dismissive, fearful, dependent, etc.;
  4. Persuasion: Your ability to change other people’s attitudes or behaviors by sharing information, feelings, and/or reasoning with them.
  5. Conflict resolution: Your ability to bring about a peaceful ending to a conflict (negative and non-productive interaction) between other individuals or groups;
  6. Negotiation: Your ability to facilitate dialogues that craft outcomes satisfying various interests.
  7. Action plans: Your ability to outline the actions needed to reach a specified goal.

Interesting. I might want to Google some of those things and take the quizzes just for the fun of it. And certainly a few skills in building positive relationships and making good plans are valuable in every area of life.

But, as the authors of “The Four Conversations: Daily Communication that Gets Results”, we’re really simple. We see four productive conversations to have at work – and we have tested them with people who are managers as well as people who have no authority whatsoever. Here they are in a nutshell:

  1. Talk about your goal(s) – what you want, when you want it, and why it matters – with other people who could be involved in accomplishing it. Have those conversations frequently.
  2. Have dialogues with others to find and clarify ideas about how you could achieve the goals, who else could be involved, and where you could make connections for resources and results.
  3. Get people in action (yourself included). Make clear requests for what you want, and when and why. Make good promises to deliver results to others so they can support your objectives. Create agreements with people for making things happen on time and on budget.
  4. Clean things up regularly. Update the facts about progress toward the goal and revise plans accordingly. Thank people when they’re great, or even just for showing up, and don’t be shy about holding them to account. That means reminding people to deliver what they promised or to revoke their promise so you can stop waiting for them. Apologize when other people are inconvenienced, or when you see either a mistake or some kind of misunderstanding that could slow down progress toward the goal.

That’s it. Have each of those 4 conversations on a regular basis, in whatever sequence is needed to keep things moving toward goal success. Productive communication is simple talk to propose specific goals, engage people in planning, and boost them into action with good agreements for What-When-Why something will happen. Then you have a regularly scheduled “status check” to get everyone updated, appreciated, and refreshed for the next steps toward the goal.

So if I want to reliably get results – including with people over whom I have no authority – I could learn to propose ideas, discuss them with others, make requests, and track progress. That’s my plan: I’ll keep practicing The Four Conversations.

A Culture of Conversations: Power to the People!

The Workplace Communication Assessment (a freebie on this site) is being tested this month with a large group of managers and staff. I’m looking to see whether it is true that “organization culture” is a product of communication problems.

This assessment has 56 questions, so it takes about 15 minutes to fill out completely. But when each person finishes it, they receive feedback on how to resolve their biggest workplace communication problem. Of course, each person may see a completely different thing as the “biggest problem”. But when we look at them all together, a pattern will likely emerge.

One thing we’ve already seen is that most people don’t think they have any power over changing those patterns. Diana is a manager who was frustrated about getting her portion of the budget transferred to her control. “They promised they would move it over,” she said, “but it hasn’t happened yet and I don’t know who to talk to about it. I’m hoping they will do it soon.”

Ah, the infamous “They”, source of all troubles. We had been talking about making good requests, getting good promises, and establishing firm agreements. But Diana still didn’t see her solution.

“What if you could find out all the key people involved in making the transfer happen?” I asked her. “Then maybe you could make a good request for action by the end of the month?”

We talked about the details for a few minutes, then the lights came on in her eyes and she said, “Yes, I can do that. In fact, I will do it. Maybe even by Friday!” Everybody in the room applauded, including me.

Realizing that our conversations have the power to change things is wonderful news. I’m excited to see what will happen when a whole group of people chooses some negative part of their culture to upgrade. Tomorrow they will look at their patterns of communication and pick a target or two. Power to the people!

Accountability Is Like Tango – It Takes Two to Do It

So the Manager says, “My people aren’t accountable”.

And the Staff People say, “People who do poor quality work are not held to account for improving it.”

I know this because I’m doing a survey about what managers and staff say about their workplace. It’s the same workplace, but two very different perspectives.

The difference between people “Being Accountable” vs. “Being Held to Account” is simple, but it’s not easy. A manager who thinks people should “be accountable” believes that accountability is a personality or character trait. It’s not. Like tango, accountability takes two people.

First, both sides have to agree on what it is that Staff Person A is going to be accountable for doing or producing. Then, when Staff Person A completes the task, Manager Person recognizes that fact, maybe just saying thank you, or maybe saying, “Okay, that’s done. Now what’s next on the list?”

Or, when Staff Person A doesn’t complete the task – either it’s late, or it’s incomplete, or it ran over the budget, the Manager Person recognizes that too. “Hey, where’s that thing you promised?” Or, “You said you would have this by 3:30. It’s late. What do we need to do to fix this for the people affected? And what do we need to do so that you deliver on time in the future?”

That’s called Holding to Account. So when Manager Person says, “My people aren’t accountable,” what s/he is really saying is either:

  • “My people aren’t reading my mind to see exactly what I want and when I want it”, or
  • “I shouldn’t have to follow up with everyone to remind people of their promises”, and/or
  • “I don’t want to have to deal with people’s explanations and excuses”, and/or
  • “I don’t like having to work with slackers to figure out how to reduce the negative impact they have on other people or how to change their behavior for next time.”

Accountability is a product of communication, not personality or character. So, Managers: Get good promises and have the Closure Conversations to complete the accountability. And Staff: Let your manager know about the costs to you of dealing with co-workers who do incomplete, late, or sloppy work.

End of sermon.

Good Communication Works at Home Too!

We deliver management communication programs in all kinds of organizations, but sometimes we get to see how the basic principles work in our personal lives too. We have a friend, I’ll call her Celia, who attended one of those programs, and sent an email saying: “Hey! This stuff works at home too!”

Celia said she was having trouble handling her own interests and commitments because her husband and two teenage boys were creating so many seemingly unnecessary interruptions in her daily life. So here’s how she described her solution:

“I got out my old notebook from your class, and realized that the first problem was that nobody seemed to be really clear on their agreements for tasks and communications and schedules here at home. Then I noticed that instead of keeping track of household and homework agreements and following up with people, I was relying on everyone’s “good will” to stay on track. That didn’t work. So I followed your 5 rules, as follows:

  1. Be clear on your requests, get good promises, and make sure they are clear & completely stated. A request + a promise = an agreement. (Wow, I really fell down on this one, but now I’ve got good agreements with all 3 people!)
  2. Make sure the agreements are recorded – plus it’s always good to keep them visible. (This is really working – I have them spelled out on a poster-sticky by the back door)
  3. Be sure you and other people put the time to perform the work for each agreement into your/their schedule. The “law of accomplishment” says everything needs to happen in time, so use your calendars. (I totally left this out. Guess what: people don’t remember!)
  4. Track what happens – when agreements are kept and when they aren’t. (This is easy now – thanks!)
  5. Follow up on each agreement, yours and theirs. Was it kept? If so, applause. If not, what is the cost or consequence caused by that failure? How will it be cleaned up? Have the closure conversations you need. (OMG, this is so much simpler now, and life-changing for my household. Yay!)

“Thank you so much. Please, the next time you give this program, tell people it works at home too!”

I’m leading a program again in 2 weeks – I’ve got a post-it reminding me to tell people that.

A Personal Upgrade for 2015

In my year-end cleanup of Stuff and Promises, I have been getting rid of stuff (Goodwill, Salvation Army, food bank, etc.) and closing out promises made. The stuff is easier to clean up than promises, because promises disappear unless they are recorded somewhere. But really, all I have to do to find broken promises is skim through my Outlook contacts, or my Facebook friends, or my LinkedIn connections. I can find Unfinished Business by just looking at a name and feeling that twinge: Oh, yeah, we were going to do that thing, or Oops, he never sent the document and I didn’t follow up.

I have done a communication course or two in my time (thanks, Werner), and was always fascinated by one unique attribute of conversations: they disappear. Unless we make a point of capturing our requests and promises – in some display that keeps them alive for us and “in existence” (not in our heads) – they will dissolve, often within minutes of being spoken.

That “existence” piece is hardest for me. I grew up thinking if it’s on a list, well, that should handle it. But it doesn’t. Unless the list includes something about time – like when the action will happen. And the person or people involved – like whoever else needs to be included or should know about this. And maybe add a location – like whether the action will be in my office, over coffee, or overseas. I don’t make a list that looks like this:

  1. Request confirmation on presentation plans from Darryl in 3:30 meeting at Stauf’s coffee shop;
  2. Review promise for training schedule with LEAN Team by email on Tuesday morning;
  3. Complete and send promised report to Sharon in office on Thursday.

Worse, I don’t always put those details in my calendar. My schedule says:

  1. Monday – 3:30, Stauf’s, Darryl
  2. Tuesday – LEAN Team schedule
  3. Thursday – Sharon’s report

As a result, I risk forgetting certain elements of the request or promise, and not getting whatever it was I wanted to accomplish. Sometimes it means an extra item on my year-end Oops List too.

I’m scheduling an upgrade for 2015: I am now putting my commitments – personal objectives, requests, and promises – into existence in a way that I “have” them alive in front of me every day, instead of trusting that I will remember to “do” them. This is an upgrade of work habits too: I am beginning to build a habit of looking at my (newly upgraded) list of commitments every evening and every morning, and adjusting my schedule as needed to accommodate them.

Conversations disappear. Commitment displays will keep them in existence. I’ll let you know what I learn.