The Hard Work of Making Good Requests: Part I

This is a tale of two mottoes. The motto I used when I worked as a management consultant was “Make it easy for people to do the right thing.” I still remember the day I invented it, after a meeting with a manager who was’t getting what he wanted from his people.

“They don’t know who they need to talk to, either in this department or in other departments,” he complained. “And they turn things in late – sometimes very late.”

I met with three of his Supervisors later that day and asked them about their jobs. I didn’t tell them their boss was dissatisfied with them, just that I wanted to know more about their responsibilities. There was a whiteboard in the room, so I drew a line down the center of it, and labeled one side “What Works” and the other one “What Doesn’t Work” about our jobs.

After they were assured that I wasn’t going to “rat them out”, as one of them said, we filled up those boards pretty quickly. I also got some solution ideas from them about what it would take to solve those “What Doesn’t Work” items.

Sure enough, the two complaints from the boss were part of the supervisors’ problems too. On the list of what didn’t work was (1) We don’t always know who to talk to about our assignments, and (2) There are no clear deadlines for most stuff. They knew the boss was unhappy about them, but didn’t know how to get the information to solve the problem.

OK, boss, tell me why you don’t include the “who to talk to” and the “due dates” in your instructions to Supervisors?

“Because they should know their jobs,” he said. “They’ve been around long enough, and should know who to talk to. And when I assign something, they should turn it around right away.” I heard his motto: “They should know what to do.” It didn’t get him what he wanted, but he seemed stuck with it.

I made up a template for job assignments – a simple form titled “Assignments” – with spaces to write What result was wanted, When it was due, Why it mattered, Who else should be consulted or included in some way, Where those people and other resources were located, and, an extra space in case there were any special instructions on How it should be done. Nothing complicated – ½ page, mostly blank.

I didn’t give it to the boss, I gave it to the Supervisors. Now, every time they get an assignment, they take the template out and ask the boss questions to fill in the blanks. The boss rolls his eyes, but at least now he’s getting what he wants. Plus, the Supervisors are actually learning who to talk to about different projects. And one of the Supervisors got a promotion to management about 5 months later. He said it was because he was good at getting things done.

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.

On Getting What You Want

The hardest thing about getting what you want is the problem of deciding what, exactly, you really do want. If the Lamp Genie offered you one wish, what would it be? Over 70% of people would ask for some time to think about it – which probably means they are living a pretty good life already. The almost-30% group would answer quickly, usually because they have some kind of emergency or are in dire need of something important (like food, shelter, and other basic resources).

But once you do know what you want, how do you get it? A friend recently told me this story as he drove off to a week-long getaway (he was talking to me on his car-phone):

“I wanted my girlfriend to support me in taking a solo summer trip to a quiet cabin by a lake. The place is a long day’s drive away from where we live, and I knew she would rather have me stay home with her. So I explained that I needed the “alone time” to clear my head and make some decisions about work, and that I would only be gone for a week and would bring back a nice surprise for her. Then I took her out to dinner at our favorite place. This softened her up and she helped me pack my stuff so I could leave early this morning. Now all I have to do is figure out what kind of “surprise” I need to bring her.”

This poor guy might need a few lessons in Straight Talk. He reminded me of a quote by Albert Camus: “Charm is a way of getting the answer ‘Yes’ without asking a clear question.” Wouldn’t it have been easier to just propose the idea (an Initiative conversation), discuss the ways it would alter their daily household routines (an Understanding conversation), then make a clear request (a Performance conversation)? Seriously, it’s not hard to say, “Would you please support me in taking a 1-week trip to the cabin so I can have some quiet time alone?”

But charm has its advantages, being softer-edged and less confrontational. It got him the answer he wanted. Now all he needs is a brainstorm idea for the gift he promised in order to close the deal when he gets home. Without that, he could join the 30% who need to put out a fire in their life.

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.

Accountability is Not Authority

 

Most managers have some confusion about “accountability”, but one manager I talked with recently takes the cake. Howard complained about the poor quality of employees, saying that his (mostly young) staff people are “not accountable”. “They just do the work they think they should do, but they are not accountable for their results,” Howard explained, summarizing our 20-minute conversation about his office problem.

Three things are missing from this logic:

  1. Howard seems to think that accountability is an inborn trait that people either have or don’t have. When I asked him how he would know if his people were “accountable for their results”, he said, “They would report results to me on a regular basis.”
  2. Howard didn’t specify exactly what results he thinks they should report. If they are doing “the work they think they should do”, then what reporting does he expect? A report on the results they think they should be producing?
  3. Howard has exempted himself from any responsibility for establishing accountability as part of his management practices. In fact, I didn’t hear any management practices at all in our conversation about accountability.

Accountability requires both Performance and Closure Conversations. With no clear management request for specific results, there is no accountability. With no clear management request for a schedule to report on those results, there is no accountability. With no employee reports – feedback to the manager on what was actually produced – there is no accountability. Accountability requires being specific about what and when to count, track, and report.

Poor Howard. He prefers to rely on Authority, which is only a hierarchical position with a title of some sort given by his higher-ups. That will never help him build accountability in his unit. But he doesn’t think he needs to do that anyway.

Howard insisted “They should know their jobs”, and refused to clarify expected results, much less set up a weekly report-out meeting, or have employees update a team-customized “results scoreboard”.

“Too much work,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to do that.” Then he went back to complaining about “young people today”.

Agreements for Change

Last night was the final class on “Leadership and Implementing Change”, and graduate students reported the most valuable things they learned. Their #1 tip – Make agreements, track agreements, and follow up on agreements.

Each student had done a semester-long project to define and implement a change in their workplace, applying the latest class lessons to the project every week. Their reports showed some changes were successful and some were not, what worked best, and what they needed to get better at doing.

The most popular idea was about agreements. If you don’t make agreements, they said, then you don’t have any clarity or certainty about what will happen or when it will be done. If you don’t track those agreements, you will forget about them and fail to follow up. And if you don’t follow up, you will “lose credibility”, as one student said. “People will think you don’t really care about whether anyone actually does what they promised to do,” she explained.

They also noticed they were not very skilled at creating agreements. One person said, “I am usually too casual about asking people to do things. I say “if you want to do this” or “maybe you could get that for me”, which isn’t a good request. And it doesn’t set up a good agreement.”

No clear agreements create unreliable results. “Without agreements, it’s a waste of everyone’s time,” another student said. “If you don’t care about making a change, don’t bother talking about it.”

Their recommendations: Start with a clear intention. Refine it in conversations with people who can assist you. Make solid agreements for people to take actions. Keep track and follow up on all promises. A useful recipe for implementing change.

Committed Complaints? Good for You!

The US election season is now underway. That means there will be 18 months of complaining about the candidates, then we can switch back to our usual complaints about the weather, TV programming, and people who eat pizza with a fork. Those are all examples of “uncommitted complaints”, because we usually are not going to do anything about them. Except for voting – please do that, OK?

A “committed complaint” is one where you are committed to taking action to get it resolved. If you have a complaint about something you ordered in a restaurant and you tell the waiter or restaurant manager about it, then that was a committed complaint. If you just gripe to your dinner companion as you walk out to the parking lot, that’s an uncommitted complaint.

Every organization has a unique menu of uncommitted complaints. Here are 3 of my favorites:

  1. We don’t have enough resources to do the job;
  2. We tried that and it didn’t work; and
  3. “They” don’t _________ (fill in the blank: care, listen, help, etc.).

Nobody ever has “enough” resources; either stop complaining about it or make a request. I met a manager who took this on and itemized the specific results her office was supposed to produce. She put the time estimate for completing each task, totaled the hours, and made a note of how many staff she had to do the work. Point made: there weren’t enough staff hours to get things done on time.

She went an extra mile, however, and spelled out the value and benefits of getting each job done: who would get the results and what difference it would make to them. Then she sent it to her two bosses with a note that said, “If you will provide me with an extra 28 staff-hours per week, I can get this done. I hope you can make this happen before the end of this month so we can get back on our timeline. Thank you.”

She got the staff-hours. “I learned the power of a well-designed request,” she said. “And I told my staff to quit griping about resources. They helped design that request, and now they need to own the results.”

The same is true for the other 2 uncommitted requests above. You tried that and it didn’t work? How about itemizing what exactly didn’t work and how it could work today? Then make a request for what you need to be successful.

And the complaint about “they” – well, we’re going to hear a lot of that for the next 18 months. Let’s save our breath and find something positive to say about something, somewhere in the world. Or get out there and fix something that matters to us. Actually, you probably already do that. But do consider passing these thoughts along in order to reduce the amount of gas between now and Election Day.

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.