Getting Responses from Non-Responders

“Don’t people know that they need to respond to their emails? Don’t they check their phone messages? They either have no manners or zero common sense!”

That was the exasperated holler from a miserable manager with a serious project and a team of people who truly believe they are “too busy” to communicate. In fact, this complaint ranks in the top ten workplace gripes. But here’s the reality: Most people do not feel obliged to check their email as often as you think they should, and they do not share your urgency for a timely response.

How do you get a response from people when you really need one? You use a Performance Conversation, because you want them to actually PERFORM, i.e., to do something or deliver something to you or someone else. Don’t try to motivate them, or explain something to them, or inspire them. If you are doing those things, you’ll be disappointed, because motivation, etc., just doesn’t guarantee performance.

Two steps:

  1. Ask them. Make a clear and clean request.
  • I would like a yes-or-no response from you on this before 12:00 noon tomorrow so I can take your information to the meeting at 12:30.
  • Please get back to me about your thoughts on this before you leave work today because I promised Dave I would get him the totals before his 7:00 PM class.
  • Your work schedule for next week needs to be turned in no later than this Wednesday, so I can factor it into my staffing plan for assembling our conference materials and room layouts.
  1. Then get a good promise from them. Don’t settle for “I’ll try”, or anything else that sounds wishy-washy to you. What you’re looking for is “OK. Will do.” Nothing less.
  • If you get an “out of office” response? You may need to talk with this person and establish a way you can reach them to get real-time responses. You may also want to hold an office meeting to discuss and agree on new communication “rules” for the group.
  • If they say yes and don’t do it? Don’t wait more than 5 minutes past the deadline you gave them. Contact them right away – a text message can be effective – and repeat the request.

When people don’t know that you’re serious about getting real-time responses to your requests, they may assume it’s just another thing for them to do – and they will add it to their “List”. Not everyone takes their communication seriously. If you do, then make that clear to the people around you.

When Integrity is Missing

You know that person who says they will do something and then doesn’t do it? The one who says he’ll be at your place at 10:00, then shows up 15 minutes – or an hour – late. Or the one who says she’ll email you that document as soon as she gets back to the office but you still haven’t received it by the next afternoon?

I was annoyed with both of those people, which didn’t change a thing, of course. I knew I needed to follow up – to let both of them know that what they promised did not match their actions. But I didn’t want to hear their explanations. I just wanted to point out the gap between promise and performance, and figure out how to get things to match better in the future. If you know a nice way to do this, let me know.

The other thing is that those broken agreements are also my bad. Agreements always have 2 ends, and I am at one of them. Did I not get a good promise? Did I not let them know their being prompt mattered to me? With the person who showed up late, I failed to let them know I had a meeting to get to, and hoped they would be on time. With the person who promised the email document, I didn’t tell them I had promised to forward it to someone else. I had to revoke that promise and make the request again.

Letting people know WHY something matters to you makes a difference because it underlines the importance of the agreement. When people know it matters, they raise their attention a bit. I dropped that ball.

It also occurred to me to do a bit of housekeeping with my own agreements. I looked over my schedule and my Due List (it used to be a To Do List, but my husband pointed out that I needed to practice what I preach and list the “deliverables” and who will get them). Sure enough, I saw several places where I had let something slip past the due date. So I had some cleanup to do myself.

Integrity is about honoring agreements. First, I need to have a good agreement – clean and clear about what will be delivered, and when, and why it matters. Second, I need to schedule whatever work is required in order to keep that agreement. Third, I need to put that schedule and agreement where I will see it, instead of putting it in a file folder under my desk or something. OK: Agreement, Schedule, Visible. Lesson learned.

Email Template from a Friend

I was talking with a former client the other day about her recipe for getting what she wants from co-workers. It’s pretty smart!

Jadie was making requests, and she was tracking the responses the way Jeffrey taught her in his MBA class. Her success rate (the % of her requests for which she received actionable responses with only 1 email) had moved from 31% to 84% – not bad for someone who was not at the top of her corporation’s food chain. But she wanted to go all the way, so she made up a Request Template to use in her emails when she wanted something from someone. Here it is:

From: Jadie R.

To: X

Subject: Request for __________

What I’m asking for: __________

When I’d like to have it happen: __________

Why it matters to me: __________

Who else is involved: __________

It would be great if you’d let me know by the end of the day today whether or not you accept this request so I know if I can count on this happening at the time specified. As always, if making this agreement doesn’t work for you at this time, please let me know that too, or send me a counter-offer for what will work better for you. Thanks so much!

Best regards, Jadie

Jadie told me she always sent these out early in the workday so people had time to read it and check their schedules to see if they could do the task she was asking for. She said she added something about “Who else is involved” if that would be helpful for people to see a bigger context for her request. Sometimes she also added a line for Where or How if it seemed appropriate. And notice that she identified What she was requesting up in the Subject line.

It worked. She is up over 97% success on her requests now. But that’s not the best part, Jadie said. “The miracle is that my co-workers are starting to use the template too, making their own modifications. It looks I’m training people – even the higher-ups – to communicate better.”

The Worst Thing About Performance Improvement

I did a survey in one organization. The two places most managers wanted performance improvements were (1) communication, and (2) accountability. OK, no surprise there. Better communication and more accountability would make a manager’s life easier, right?

But 6 months later, guess what they hated most… Communication about accountability.

Dave, a mid-level manager, said on the comments section of the survey, “I hate dealing with people’s excuses for why they didn’t do what they said. There’s always some justification, but it’s really just a story about where they stopped and who else is to blame.”

Sharon wrote, “I don’t want to try the accountability thing anymore. People just give explanations for why they couldn’t do it. They’re creative, but it’s annoying to deal with their buck-passing.”

So the worst thing about improving performance was dealing with people’s excuses about why they weren’t performing.

One manager, Carole, found a solution. “I took my people at their word when they told me that other people were messing us up. We started meeting with key people in other units. We explained our objectives to them. We told them about our deadlines and what we needed from them – and why it was important. After that, when we asked for things from them, they were on board with us. We’re meeting our group targets now.”

Using the excuses as feedback on the quality of relationships gave Carole a reason to reach out and strengthen those relationships. A little closure conversation plus some understanding conversations and voila! Performance conversations (requests + promises = agreements) gained more muscle – and excuses for failures were no longer necessary.

Interesting – talking to people who are messing up your life can actually be a useful thing to do.

Note from Crabby Consultant

A colleague called, sounding ½ angry and ½ upset and said he thought I was supposed to attend a professional meeting last week. No, I told him, I’ve got a book to write and will not be attending those anymore. He growled, “I thought you were going to support us until you retired.”

I am retired from consulting, I explained gently (i.e., suppressing my indignation). And I never promised that I would go to every meeting forever. Your expectation is not my promise. OK, I didn’t say that last thing, but I was thinking it. Sheesh.

Then I realized I never had a Closure Conversation with that group to let them know I’m making some changes in my life and career. If I’d done that, it would help them understand my departure and accommodate any difference I made to their gatherings. And they would know they can be in touch with me in other ways if they want to do that.

My bad. I’ll go to their next meeting and let them know I’m in transition and no longer consulting.

And, Note To Self: When I’m crabby, it’s probably because I left out a productive conversation somewhere recently.

Do You Micro-Manage Slackers?

People are mad that Elaine avoids work – and sick of her “good excuses”. There are two different views about what their manager, Beth, should do:

  1. She should meet with Elaine at the start and end of every day to check on whether she’s doing her assignments or not.
  2. She should give assignments to everyone according to skills and interests and follow up with everyone – in group meetings.

That 1st option is called micro-managing. Singling out the slackers for a double dose of attention is a poor use of a manager’s time and energy.

The 2nd view suggests a way to use feedback: make a list of everyone’s primary assignments with milestones and due dates – a simple way to keep agreements visible to all. The Assignment Calendar is a manager’s best friend.

Beth took that advice and posted an Assignment Calendar showing everyone’s assignment timelines.  “It was much easier than I thought it would be,” she reported. “I made a chart listing each staff person, with the Friday due dates for the next 2 months as column-headers. Then I entered their milestones into the chart.”

She also said the best part was that her Tuesday staff meetings got much simpler too. “We just go down the column for this coming Friday and everyone reports their assignment status: who’s on track, needs support, how things are going. Elaine isn’t special anymore – she has to participate to keep from embarrassing herself.”

That’s It – I’m Done Waiting!

How much time do we spend waiting for other people to do something?

I know a guy who just had a new floor installed in his house, and he was waiting to hear from the installer about completing the job. The moldings that connected the floor – a beautiful bamboo – to the carpeted areas had not been put in place, and by Week 3, he was losing patience.

Actually, his wife was losing patience. “What’s taking so long? Why don’t they call back? How long are you going to wait?”  The nice new floor was turning into a major annoyance for housecleaning and it wasn’t helping marital peace and happiness much either.

Husband calls Installer and leaves a phone message. Waits 2 days. Husband calls again and sends an email. The next day, Installer sends an email to the Lumber Store Guy asking if the bamboo pieces are in yet, copying Husband. Husband returns an email to both (“Copy All”) to stir up some urgency. The story goes on, but you get the idea.

But here’s the Big News Flash: Not everyone on Planet Earth has learned to:

  1. Check their phone answering machine and email in-box every day;
  2. Make agreements for when they will follow up or get back to you – get a Good Promise; and/or
  3. Actually follow up or get back to you even if they said they would do that.

So people don’t know or do these things, and we wait. I’ve decided to step things up a bit: I’m going to ask for timelines with every request. Plus, I’m going to notify people that I will follow up. And I’ll tell them when I will do the follow-up.

One last thing – when I hear someone complaining about waiting for something, I’m going to tell them to make a Request: Say What you want + When you want it + Why it matters. Then ask when they will have it for you, and tell them you will follow-up at that time.

It looks like we’ll need to train the people around us in how to make life work for everybody, one Request & Promise at a time.

Busy is a Conversation

Meredith Fineman titled her article, written in September 2013, “Please Stop Complaining About How Busy You Are”.  I looked it up recently, after listening to a colleague go on – and on – about how many appointments he had, how many deadlines, and how many staff had been cut in his organization.  He told me he was “like an octopus, with all 8 arms working on something all the time.”  Poor guy, I wanted to throw him a few shrimps and crabs for sympathy.

Not really. As Meredith says, “So much of this is about out-doing each other. To say that “I’m busier than you are” means I’m more important, or that my time is more valuable, or that I am “winning” at some never-finished rat race to Inbox Zero.”

I looked that up. Inbox Zero is a “rigorous approach to email management that aims at keeping the inbox empty — or almost empty — at all times”. It was developed by Merlin Mann, who says that time and attention are both limited, and our productivity suffers when we confuse our inbox with a “to do” list.

Which reminds me – I know a group of people in one organization whose way of saying “I’m busier than you are” is to tell people how many emails they have in their inbox. They all have thousands of them – and they brag about it!

Being busy is a popular conversation, but it’s a little like bragging about having bad work habits. I know four conversations could be deployed to turn that around.

  • Initiative: Tell people you’re going to upgrade your scheduling system in 2 ways. (1) You will maintain a Do-Due List of what needs to get done and delivered, including due dates; and (2) You will take 60 minutes every Friday afternoon to schedule the tasks you intend to accomplish in the following week.
  • Understanding: Ask co-workers for ideas on how to implement this. Talk about what their concerns are, and make minor adjustments to your plan as needed. Beware of getting pulled into the “It Can’t Be Done” conversation: this isn’t about doing more work, it’s about giving yourself the satisfaction of completing some tasks while at the same time giving up the boring “too busy” conversations at work.
  • Performance: Get clear requests from people who want something from you – what do they want, when do they want it, and why does it matter? Then, if it doesn’t fit into your schedule, make a counteroffer instead of a promise. “I can only do that if I drop this other thing off my schedule. Which do you think is more important?”
  • Closure: Tell people some of the most important things you have on your Do/Due List, when they’re due, and why they matter – to you. Thank them for their support in your being more effective with your time and tasks. Apologize for any inconvenience this change will be for them.

Then give up the “I’m busy” conversation. You’ll come to grips with the fact that there will always be more things that could be done than there will be time to do them. That’s life. And you’re responsible for your schedule and your productivity. You have to choose and plan. The good news is that it’s fun to accomplish things, even small ones. See if you can schedule and complete an accomplishment or two every day!

Conversations – It’s Your Turn Now

Dear Everybody,

I’m at a conference in San Francisco this week. I’ll be presenting at the Conference for Global Transformation, then visiting relatives, then skibbling around the city with my sister for a few days.

While I’m away, it’s your turn to practice some stretch exercises with The Four Conversations. I recommend that you try my 3 favorites:

Make some unreasonable requests – either ask people you don’t usually ask, or ask for more than you usually do. Stretch your conversational muscles.

Close out some old issues with people – pick someone that is a little annoying to you, or who you avoid because you don’t want to have that same old conversation again. Prepare your thoughts for using the “four A’s” of closure: Acknowledge the facts of where things stand with your past relationship, Appreciate something about him/her or your relationship, Apologize for something (like for putting this conversation off for so long), and Amend any broken agreements (if you have any). Then go ahead and have that conversation with the intention of clearing the past out of your present relationship. The point is not to have a new super friendship with them or anything, but to get that twitch out of your stomach every time you see or think about them.

Make some unreasonable promises – look at something you would really want to accomplish or take action on, then tell someone you’re going to do it by a specific date. Don’t just tell any old person – tell someone who matters to you. Let them know you will follow up with them to let them know if you did it or not. This is “putting yourself on the hook” to take action, and it works better than simply “trying” to do something on your own.

That’s it. I’ll be back and tell you about a “nuclear conversation” with the Indians (the Tribal Elder kind, not the baseball team kind). But only if you practice at least one of those 3 things over the next two weeks, OK?

Motivation Postscript – Excuses and Justifications

There is one last piece to the motivation story. It’s about what happens when people agree to do something by a certain time, then don’t do it and don’t let you know in advance that they aren’t going to be able to do it.

These people have learned – from their parents, teachers, and bosses – that this is OK as long as you have a good Reason for not delivering what you promised when you promised it. Actually, some people don’t even bother with a Reason, they just tell you they will do something and then they forget about it. Maybe they expect you to follow up, or maybe they don’t think they did anything as extreme as “making a promise” – hey, it was just a thought, right?

In either case, what you need to remember is that people are trainable. It just means you have to invest a little more time in making 3 things very clear to them:

  1. You plan to treat what they have said they will do as a Promise, not just a thought. You have to let them know this at the time they say they will do something. EXAMPLE: Them – “I will call you tomorrow.” You – “I will expect your call before 3:00 PM. I appreciate your promising to do that.”  Dropping the “promise” word into what you say makes a difference.
  2. When the call doesn’t come, and you know they’ve either forgotten or blown it off, prepare your next communication and deliver it promptly. EXAMPLE: “I was disappointed when you didn’t keep your promise to call me by 3:00 PM today. We need to find a way to talk clearly with each other, so neither of us is left expecting something that isn’t going to happen.”
  3. When they give you a Reason (or justification, or excuse), even if it’s a pretty good one, let them know you are going to start counting. EXAMPLE: “OK, I understand. But I still think we need to have clearer communication. This one time is alright, and I can let it go. If you can’t keep your word again though, it is going to be like “Strike Two” for me, and I’m likely to be cautious about believing you will do what you say next time. I don’t want to even consider what happens after that. We really need to work together to improve our ways of talking to each other , don’t you think?”

That last question makes an opening for them to respond to the idea of adding this much rigor to your conversations. You can adjust your tone and intensity to be appropriate – maybe they want to learn how to upgrade their communication, or maybe the whole idea of anybody taking them seriously strikes them as absurd or even infuriating.

Don’t give up. People are trainable. But if you keep accepting being blown off or tolerating excuses, you are training them in the wrong direction. Stick to your guns: honor your word, and support other people in seeing that it is possible – and beneficial – to do that too. It’s motivational because it gets people moving.