Motivation, Part 2: Use These Conversations

We have found that ALL attempts at motivation involve either Understanding Conversations or Performance Conversations, or some combination of the two.  When you think about it, that’s really remarkable.  No matter what you are trying to get done, or whom you are trying to get to do it, every single attempt at motivation we have studied involves only these two different types of conversations.

Understanding Conversations pertain to all attempts to have people “see”, “understand”, “realize” or “appreciate” what we need from them. Of course, we usually hope  they will then feel compelled to take action.  How many times have you explained why something was important to get done? Or described a task or project so that people would really “get” what it was about? Sometimes, people hop right to work on it, sometimes not at all.

The trick with Understanding Conversations is that you usually have to take that explanation one step further and have an actual dialogue, i.e., you have to listen to what they say about it and include their input into the discussion. They may have questions about how – or why – to do it. They may tell you they don’t have time, or suggest alternative ways to get parts of it done, or give you any number of other kinds of feedback on your explanation. Dialogue rules here, even when it gets complicated, emotional, or seems to take too long.

Performance Conversations go right to the bottom line and make a request: “Will you do this by Wednesday afternoon?” “Will you be able to get this into your calendar this week?” No hinting and no emotional states – just ask for what you want them to do or deliver.

Then close the deal by confirming that they have agreed to do it: “So you will have it to me before 5 PM on Wednesday, right?” “So you will get this finished – and let me know that it’s done – before you leave work on Friday?”

These two pieces – your request and their acceptance of an agreement – constitute their promise for performance. It could be an agreement to deliver a product, service, or communication by a specified time. Or it could be that a particular task will be completed, but even if it was just an agreement to “do something”, you make it clear that you want to be notified when it is finished. That “closing deliverable” makes the agreement visible and observable to everyone involved.

A Performance Conversation can be as simple as this:  “Here’s what I’d like you to do: Have the report on my desk by 5 PM Thursday. Will you do that?” If they accept, you have an agreement for performance. If they decline, you’ll need to go back to having an Understanding Conversation, i.e., renegotiate, or find someone else to do the job.

It doesn’t sound much like “motivation” does it? That’s because you are explaining what, exactly, you want done and by when, then asking them to do it, then getting an agreement for a result. At its heart, there is no rah-rah about it.  You can dress it up if you like – you know your people and whether you need to add other ingredients. Sometimes it helps to add praise, more precision, or just something to make it friendlier and respectful of their current obligations. But not always. Some people prefer to just “Git ‘er Done” without the rah-rah.

Motivation: Part 1 in a series

This will be a multi-part post about “motivation”, i.e., getting people into action. Here’s the starting point:

  • What does it take to get people to do what needs to be done?
  • How do you get people into action?
  • Why are people not doing what they are assigned?

We often get these questions from managers who are trying to get things done “through” other people.  Some managers get so discouraged with how hard it is to get other people to do a task, or do it right, that they tell us things like:

  • I might as well just do it myself,
  • It’s just not going to get done so we’ll do without it,
  • We’ll have to work around that problem.

In other words, they’d rather give up than deal with people’s resistance or non-performance. (Note: It can be hard to tell at first whether someone is resisting direction or just not able to perform a particular assignment).

Another thing we have noticed is that most managers believe the source of these problems is that people simply are not “motivated” (whatever that means).  Many managers we know are working on motivating their people, in the hope that they will become more productive and cooperative.

What makes the motivation problem even more frustrating is these managers tell us that it is their job to motivate the people who work for them!  So if you are a manager and your people are not motivated to perform well, then it must be YOUR fault.  Just to seal the fate of these managers, most management textbooks agree, identifying motivation as one of the primary functions of being a manager.

The irony, however, is that almost every manager we have ever known has a list of things they want to accomplish but never seem to find the time to do. Does that mean managers have trouble motivating themselves to do things?  Take a look at your own “to do” lists – anything on there that’s been around for more than a month or two? If we can’t always motivate ourselves, how can we know what works to reliably motivate others?

We’ve been studying managers for years, and have noticed what they do to motivate their colleagues, spouses, friends, and children.  In other words, we have seen them “motivating others” in formal settings and in informal settings.

What works is – you guessed it – some well-designed conversations. Nothing tricky, nothing you don’t already know how to do. But the way you use either Understanding Conversations or Performance Conversations– or a combination of the two – can make all the difference. Imagine that: a dialogue where you actually listen to the other person, or a clear request and promise, or some of each of those, might just “motivate” them.

And it works on you too. I’ll show you how. More coming soon…

Bridge the Gap between Understanding and Action

We were training the group about the difference between Understanding Conversations – where people get interested in an idea – and the Performance + Closure conversations that have people take action on it.

Eddie found me on a break, and asked, “So you’re trying to bridge the gap between my knowing I need to go to the gym and my actually going there, right?”

“Exactly”, I told him. “You already understand what you want to do, right? Now all that’s needed is for you to make a promise – to someone – that you will do it. And then schedule one or more Closure Conversations with that person to follow up on how it’s going.”

“In fact,” I said, feeling impish, “We will be back here in 3 months. You could promise me what you will do, and then you and I can talk about your results at that time.”

Eddie suddenly realized that he was being invited to make a promise for action and report on how many times he actually went to the gym in the next 3 months. He seemed both intrigued and uncomfortable with changing his ideas about getting fit into promises for making them real. He didn’t promise, but I know he’s looking at doing that.

I asked Eddie if I could share our conversation with the whole group and he said that would be fine. It was a good example of the difference between Understanding Conversations and Performance + Closure Conversations. In telling the group, I added one idea: Maybe we should take a “BEFORE” picture of Eddie today.

We didn’t do that, of course. Eddie needed time to think through how he can bring gym-going back into his life on a reliable schedule. But he now has the support of the whole group in making this change. One of those people might make a request, and probably several of them will have Closure Conversations with him for follow-up and support.

I’m thinking that Eddie will going to look more trim and fit when we see him next time.

Accountability Is Not Given by DNA

“Nobody is accountable here,” Shelly told me. “I used to work in a company where people kept track of their requests and promises, and they were responsible for making sure they got what they needed and did what they said they would do.”

I’ve heard this more than once, of course: some people are just not accountable. The problem is that it makes accountability sound like it is a genetic trait: either you are accountable or you’re not. Unfortunately, the problem is not with “the people”. The problem is with the person who is complaining about a lack of accountability.

Accountability has two parts: a clear agreement (a Performance Conversation, including a due date of course) + a follow-up on the result (a Closure Conversation). Accountability does not rest with the person who makes the promise – it lives with the person who will hold the promiser to account. Apparently it’s the “holding” part that Shelly doesn’t understand.

Shelly insisted that the “holding to account” was not her job. She gave examples of the agreements she had made in the last week, telling me exactly what she said to each team member:

  • “So we have an agreement that you’ll have the Board’s statistics to me by the 24th of this month. That’s great.”
  • “Thanks for agreeing to talk with the Fiscal office about this. I’ll look to hear back from you about how it went at our staff meeting on Tuesday.”
  • “I appreciate your updating the meeting schedule with our client. Please post the new schedule on the bulletin board on Friday morning so that everyone knows, okay?”

“None of them did what they agreed,” she said. “I didn’t get the Board stats on the 24th, Chuck didn’t have the information from Fiscal in time for the staff meeting, and Sheryl didn’t post the new client schedule until the following Tuesday. They just aren’t responsible people.”

I told her what I saw was missing. Since these people are not used to being held to account, all Shelly needs to add to each of those Performance Conversations (request + promise = agreement) is one sentence that lets them know there will be closure.”

  • “If I haven’t seen those statistics on my desk by mid-day on the 24th, I will come check with you to pick them up.”
  • “I will put you on the meeting agenda as part of our Status Reporting update, so you can tell people about the Fiscal response to our proposal.”
  • “I will email everyone today to tell them they can check the new client schedule on Friday to plan their calendar for next week.”

Shelly didn’t like all those “I will” statements, but finally accepted that she was going to have to invest in building accountability in her new job. “I guess if my predecessor didn’t train her people,” she sighed, “I will have to do it.”

It’s not so hard, really. If you want a particular result, it is important to make it clear by when you want to see it, and find a way to emphasize that it’s important that you see it completed. If I know you’ll come to my office to get something, or that I’m on your meeting agenda, or that people need information to plan their schedules, I will be more aware of how important timeliness is in my assignment. Otherwise, I am likely to think the assignment is just “business as usual” – and if business has usually been sloppy, I might be too.

Accountability is built by your conversations and the actions that make agreements real. You can build it anywhere you choose if you are willing to step out of your comfort zone just a bit.

Performance Conversation – Requests and Promises for Agreements

This is from Laurie, even though it says the author is Jeffrey.

I see why performance conversations are such a confront: saying publicly what I’ll do and by when would be fine if I was sure nobody was listening!

So, I have created a timeline for getting my “management is missing” summaries – including solutions – out on the Management-is-Missing blog before the end of December. And I’ll meet with my weblog guy to learn how to turn the prototype into something user-friendly – in that timeline too.

To box myself in, I’ve requested an appointment with him. So as soon as he picks the date and time to meet, I’ll have an agreement to turn over a deliverable.

When I know someone will be expecting to meet with me and discuss my deliverable, I have an obligation to produce, and to arrange my schedule to do the work and be at the meeting. That’s why performance is a product of agreements.

OK, I’m a woman at work!

What Happens When Promises Aren’t Kept?

All of us have failed to keep a promise we made to someone.  It might have been we forgot to make a call, failed to get something done on time, or only did part of what we said we would.  And even though we may have a good reason for breaking our promise, there are consequences nevertheless.  Among these are:

  1. People get upset.  Although most of us don’t like dealing with upset people, the fact is they have a right to be upset.  After all, they counted on us to do something and we didn’t do it.  Being upset is perfectly understandable.
  2. We lose credibility.  Credibility results from doing what you said you would do by when you said you would do it.  Even if we have a really good excuse, every time we fail to keep a promise, our credibility suffers.
  3. We lose trust.  When we fail to keep our promises, people see us as less trustworthy.  Even if we think we are completely trustworthy, others may not share that opinion if we fail to keep our promises.
  4. We can lose affinity.  People stop liking us as much.  Sure, our close friends will still like us if we don’t keep our promises, but others may not.  Like it or not, people make decisions about how they will treat us based on whether they like us.

There are no doubt other costs , but these are among the primary ones.  How many of these can you afford?

One way to reduce these costs is to have a Closure Conversation in which you (1) acknowledge you did not keep your promise, (2) recognize it had an impact on the person to whom you made it, (3) apologize for the mess you have created, and (4) offer whatever assistance you can to clean it up.  Such a Closure Conversation might look something like this:

“I promised that I would have the data to you today by 3 and I have not done that.  I know you were going to use the information in a report that is due at 5 and that my failure to have the data puts you in a tight spot.  I apologize for the problem I have created and if there is anything I can do to help you now, please let me know and I will do it.”

Closure Conversations don’t make everything better, but they can sure help.  Next time you fail to keep a promise, no matter how big or small, try having a Closure Conversation with the person.

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.