Do You Have to Go to That Meeting?

A recent article in the Washington Post shared Tom Fox’s assessment of the meetings he attended over the course of one month. He didn’t report the score on his rating system for meetings he wanted to avoid in the future (Red), those that were a fairly good use of time (Yellow), and the ones that produced some valuable outcome for himself and his team (Green). But he did dig deeper into why some meetings are a problem. For each of those “Red” meetings, he asked 3 questions:

  1. Who requested those meetings – me, or somebody else?
  2. What could I have done to make those meetings more productive?
  3. How important was my participation in those meetings?

The result? He now has some new policies regarding meetings:

  1. Respond to meeting invitations (requests) by:
    1. Politely bowing out of meetings that appear likely to be an unproductive use of time;
    2. Asking for an email sharing of information instead of a meeting, to allow people to review it at a time that fits their own schedule; or
    3. Asking for clarification of the meeting purpose, timeline, or invitation list to determine the value for you.
  2. And, to initiate your own meetings, send out a meeting agenda with a timeline, organized to help achieve the meeting objective. This also helps during the meeting, to keep people from drifting into other subjects or monopolizing the discussion.

These are good examples of “productive conversations”:

  • Performance conversations use requests and promises to create agreements for action, and
  • Initiative conversations that state What, When, and Why you are proposing something, in this case, a meeting.

It’s a great way to be more responsible for your time at work.  Extra bonus: these tips might even reduce a recurring non-productive conversation in your life: complaining about meetings that are too long, badly managed, or a waste of your time. Now you have some ways to say No when you need to. You can see Tom’s article at How to Get Out of Meetings.

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!

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.

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.

What to Do About those “Lazy” People

A recent survey of workplace challenges listed one old favorite: Dealing with the “lazy people” in the workplace. These are the people who have clear assignments and do them fairly well, but never step outside their narrow boundaries.

Why this hasn’t been solved is a mystery to me, as it’s really pretty easy. There are 2 players here.

  1. First we have Miss Go-Getter, the person who sees other people working (or not working) and wonders why they never seem to take charge of anything.
  2. Then we have Miss Normal, the person who only does what she’s told and doesn’t speak up or raise her hand to take charge of anything.

Miss Go-Getter believes she is working harder and doing more than Miss Normal. She’s right about that, and she likes it that way – Go-Getters are organized to set goals, accomplish things, and be productive. She likes “owning” her work, and sometimes has difficulty delegating to others. Like the Little Red Hen, Miss Go-Getter likes to do it herself, get it right, and hope others follow her lead.

Miss Normal is not so bold, and maybe even a little unsure of her ability to do some tasks. So she watches others to learn the right steps, hesitates about speaking up, and doesn’t go beyond her assignments. She doesn’t think she’s lazy, just a little shy and uncertain but competent enough for the job.

Miss Go-Getter complains (to everyone), “Why does the boss let Miss N. get away with not doing much of anything around here. She has to be told what to do, then get micro-managed to do it. It’s like she’s only half an employee!”

Get over yourself, Miss Go-Getter. Here are three easy solutions:

  1. Proposal to the Boss: “I would like to mentor Miss N. to help her learn how to connect her work to the Service Department, and maybe have more confidence in herself and her ideas. Is that something you would consider?”
  2. Request to Miss N.: “Would you be willing to let me coach you to learn all the details about how this procedure works in every situation? It’s complex and involves several other departments. I have some experience with it that I’d be willing to pass along to you. I could start showing you the ropes next week – probably 2 hours a week for the rest of this month would do it. Does that sound like a good idea to you?
  3. Stop gossiping and complaining to other people in the workplace about Miss N. and practice being more professional and compassionate. Not everyone has your ambition and metabolism.

Pick one. Or two. Or all three. Thanks.

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.”

Not Everybody’s Interested

I used to think everyone wanted to know more about “productive communication”. People are only interested in productive communication in the areas of life where they have some commitment.

That seems obvious now, but I didn’t always know how to find out about people’s commitments. Here’s my latest method: look at how long it takes them to respond to an email communication or a phone message. Try sending an email or leaving a phone message inviting someone to join you at an event, go out for dinner, or get back to you with a date and time they can meet with you. Be sure to include something about the purpose of the occasion, and make it friendly-sounding. Then start counting.

Within 24 hours? They have a commitment to something in your invitation. Two days? They were out of town, busy hosting their in-laws, or lost their smartphone. More than two days? They’re trying to think up a way to get your emails out of their inbox without telling too big a lie. Or they don’t have high-tech things like phone answering machines or email capability. In either case, quit inviting them to do things.

I speak from experience here – I’ve been on both ends of this situation. I am working to make my communications clearer now:

  1. Add a note about when I’d like to hear back if they do have an interest in my request or offer;
  2. Add a note about how it’s OK not to respond if they’re not interested in pursuing this now; and
  3. Make sure I let them know what I’m planning to do in either case, and that I value our relationship no matter what they choose to do now.

It’s simple etiquette, and it’s already saving time – I’m not waiting for people anymore. Plus I’m learning more about the gap between what people say they are committed to and what they will actually take action on. Useful information in updating my contact records.

Do You Have Problems Working Across Silos? 

We did a little survey in a group of managers, asking them about the biggest communication problems in their organization. Here’s a winner:

“How do I get people in different silos to cooperate with each other rather than butting heads?”

They called it the Silo Effect: when you are trying to communicate with people outside your silo in the hierarchy, you don’t have enough authority to communicate effectively with them.

We thought this was silly – can’t you just make a request? No. Because they won’t honor it as valid or important – they don’t have to even listen to you.

The solution: put the hierarchy to work. One senior manager said, “Talk with your colleagues to get very clear about what you need from people in other departments. What products, services, and communications do you want from them? When do you want them – on a regular schedule, just a few times, or one-time only? Why, e.g., which goals will be advanced by this connection?”

“Once you’ve done that”, she said, “you can meet with your manager to present the need for the link and ask for help creating a pathway with other key people involved. Sometimes there are good reasons why a connection won’t work right now, but usually there is a way forward.”

Silos exist for a reason, but cross-silo links are critical to the success of some projects and goals. Specifying What-When-Why will help everyone in every silo see a bigger picture than what’s piled up on their desks. They might just listen – and deliver.

Quit Motivating Me!

We did a survey of about 25 managers, and one of the biggest problems they reported was “Getting people motivated, keeping them motivated, and/or having them motivated in the right direction”.

Have you ever had anyone try to motivate you? Don’t you hate that? It’s more like a manipulation than any kind of inspiration or encouragement. This points to a failing of many managers: they don’t see themselves as responsible for keeping up the energy of the workplace. They have too many meetings that drag on too long, or they don’t “close out” assignments and projects on the due date, or they assume that everyone understands – and remembers – the goals and objectives of the department regardless of what has been going on in their lives.

Just because somebody isn’t doing what you want them to do doesn’t mean they aren’t “motivated”. There are probably about a dozen other things that are more likely:

  • They are disorganized in managing their work and feel overwhelmed with mess and loose ends.
  • They are not good at scheduling their tasks and commitments and feel “behind” all the time.
  • They are already at their productive max and just wish you would stop asking them to do things.

None of those problems is going to be solved by “motivation”. People sometimes need assistance in getting a better grip on their workload by learning ways to be more productive –office tidiness and scheduling habits need an upgrade now and then.

We know a manager who has had good results holding an Office Cleanup Day once every quarter. He gets get everyone cleaning out their file drawers and email in-boxes, and has them make up a fresh “Do-Due List” of everything they really need to address within the next two weeks. He’s done it for the past 5quarters and claims everybody is more awake, interested, and productive than they used to be.

One other replacement for “motivation” is to make sure people are very clear about what they need to do, how soon it should be done, and why doing it would be more important than doing some of the other things on their desk. The What-When-Why rule of productive communication is usually a better strategy than trying to make someone “feel” a certain way, such as motivated, engaged, or committed. A straight request is: “Here’s What I want, When I want it, and Why it matters. Are you available to do that?”

Of course, it’s good to add some humanity to it by tailoring your request to whatever already-existing relationship you have. If you can connect on a more personal level, you won’t be mistaken for a robot – and it’s okay to dress your request up a little as long as you’re genuine about it. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking you can reach into my mind and “motivate” me.