This Middle Manager is Between a Rock and a Hard Place

A manager, Claire, told me that being a “middle manager” was the hardest job she has ever had. She explained it this way: “I’m supposed to balance the interests of the employees who report to me with the interests of my Big Cheese Boss. Which, in my case, means I am between a bunch of people who have job descriptions, projects, and responsibilities… and a woman who is focused on moving up the ladder to the C-Suite. She wants to celebrate the pinnacle of her career before she turns 50.”

Claire has weekly meetings with her staff to review the status of her department’s current and upcoming projects. “That part goes well,” she says. “But when we discuss where things stand, we like to make a list of people’s ideas for ways to improve their work and their results. The problem is they almost always ask for something that I cannot seem to pry out of my Boss: clear goals and success measures.”

She told me she knows using goals and measures would help her “group” become more like a “team”. Some other Middle Managers in her organization created scoreboards for their people to review and update every week. Claire envied them. “I don’t know why their Big Bosses helped them create clear goals and measures and mine won’t,” she said. “I wish my Boss would say what she wants from us, so I could make a scoreboard too. But she meets with me for 15 minutes every other week, and doesn’t want to work on anything with me. She says I need to decide for myself how to manage my people.”

Finally, Claire made up her mind to handle it herself. “I took two of those other Middle Managers out to lunch,” she said. “We talked about the work my department does, and what each of them wanted from us and from our projects. I took notes – right on the paper tablecloth cover – and then I spent the weekend reviewing all 6 of our current initiatives in light of that conversation. I came up with 2 goals and 4 measures of success.”

Still, Claire’s Big Boss didn’t want to review them with her, or even give her a nod of approval. Claire went ahead and presented them to her team anyway. She told the staff about talking with the other managers, then her group discussed the goals she had created for the department.

“They revised them a little,” she said, “and turned one sort of bulky goal into two separate goal statements. But they really liked the measures. My idea was that we could measure these 3 things”:

  1. Dollars saved;
  2. Other department personnel participating in our projects; and
  3. Survey results from external users on their level of satisfaction.

“They dove right in,” she said. “They all started playing with the measures and came up with this variation:

  1. Year-end savings;
  2. External participants in our projects; and
  3. Satisfaction of our users.

“It was funny. They wanted the first letters of the 3 goals to spell something, so now they had Y-E-S. Two people volunteered to make up the scoreboard for tracking the external participants and user satisfaction measures. I guess they really were hungry to see a way to track our accomplishments and get some bragging rights.”

Work without a scoreboard is just that – work. If we want accomplishment, we need to create a game. Good work, Claire. Hats off to the staff for playing full out. And thanks much to Landmark Worldwide for teaching me the difference between just doing things vs. creating an accomplishment.

Understanding is a Dialogue – It Goes Two Ways

I was talking with Kevin, manager of a Customer Service Department, about (his words here) “how to get people to understand their jobs”. He wants to see “better performance”, and hasn’t been able to “get them to raise their standards”.

I’m thinking, “Uh oh, Kevin’s got a real problem: he thinks it’s his people but more likely, it’s really him. And then he launched into criticizing one of The Four Conversations. “I read on your website about Understanding Conversations,” he said. “But they don’t work. I had a meeting with the senior-level Customer Service people to try it out. It didn’t work.”

Here’s what he told the Customer Service people that he wanted from them:

  1. When you interact with people to schedule their appointments with our Tech Specialists, you either have to set up a new account for them or update the existing one. That’s because we need all their contact information plus details on the history of their problem,what equipment they have, and what they want to accomplish.
  2. When you are closing out their appointment, make sure you find out whether they got their problem solved before you talk about their payment. Take the time to hear – and record – their questions and concerns, and to see what else they need. The Tech people want this feedback.

“See?” Kevin asked me. “I told them exactly what good performance is about. But they are still doing incomplete records on people’s accounts. And they still don’t make good notes on what the customers say about their problem-solving process.”

I asked Kevin what his people had to say about his two “standards”. He rolled his eyes and assured me that they had “nothing useful to say”. I pressed for details, so he told me, “They just said the usual stuff. The computers are too slow. The Customer Service spreadsheet doesn’t connect right to the Tech’s session notes. The customers don’t want to wait for the computer, or to have a long talk after their session. Blah blah blah.”

I knew I was going to go back to the website and re-write the little paragraph about Understanding Conversations (The Book). I needed to move the part where it says, “These are 2-way dialogues” up to the beginning. Too many managers – especially high-level ones – think that an Understanding Conversation means telling people what to do, and then asking them, “Do you understand?”

I met with Kevin’s senior-level people and made a list of what they said was needed to implement his requests more completely. The first – and funniest – result was that they decided to make their own appointment with the Tech Specialists! Those meetings produced three outcomes that will be completed by the end of this month:

  • The Customer Service Department is getting a system and software upgrade;
  • All of the company’s departments will be using the same software and able to connect quickly; and
  • The Tech Specialists are working with Customer Services to clarify exactly what feedback they really need from each customer appointment.

Kevin took this as a lesson on learning how to listen: he plans to start taking notes on what he hears. We all think this will help him hold up his end of the Understanding Conversation.

 

Is Resistance a Useful Response to Change? Yes and No.

There’s a rumor that people don’t like change, and they resist it. Know anybody who’s resisting something? I just scrolled through Facebook, and there’s a lot of resisting going on there – mostly about some aspect of our political situation. I’m not sure if the solution I used in my management consulting practice is applicable here, but I’ll give it a shot.

When people were resisting an organizational change, I used the Understanding Conversation/Dialogue approach. Mostly it was organized to have people say what their problem was with the change, and to offer solutions or ideas that might remedy that problem. The only rule was that you had to get specific: exactly what does not work for you, why not, and a more workable option for solving your problem. This has been effective in some very difficult mergers, down-sizings, and other complex changes in corporations and government agencies.

I remember the time the Maintenance guys were pushing back against the installation of a new IT system. Their resistance was choking off any hope of getting an upgrade installed that was badly needed in other departments. The Maintenance people got specific.

“That new system is going to restrict how we purchase our equipment for repairing trucks,” one of the Supervisors said.

“Seriously?” the CEO asked me later that morning. “Those guys barely finished high school. They don’t know what an IT system is, much less have the know-how for seeing how it affects their equipment purchases.”

The next day, I brought the IT people in to meet with the Maintenance supervisors and they solved the problem. “We never saw that,” an IT team member said. “I’m glad those guys noticed it, because it would have limited their options for getting what they need to do their jobs.”

The CEO apologized for underestimating the knowledge of his Maintenance team.

But that discussion wasn’t just a bunch of complaints. The participants all got specific, and talked about the details of their problem and what needed attention. If you look at the comments from Facebook, however, you’ll see accusations (he’s an imbecile, they are lying, etc.) and complaints (they don’t care about people) – all generalities with no specifics and no reasonable ideas for solutions.

Maybe I’m just tired of the wasted energy in so many interactions. But could a grownup conversation, sharing different perspectives about what might work, just possibly be effective? For sure, getting stubborn and refusing to cooperate is getting us nowhere. But then, politics isn’t always about making things work, is it? I should know that – we have been watching Season 3 of House of Cards, i.e., a story that focuses on on individual success and relationships with very little integrity.

I’ll go back to ignoring politics and focusing on something I can have an impact on.

 

Big News! Communication Failures Cause Change Failures!

OK, that’s not really such big news, is it?  Gary, an HR executive in an accounting firm, just ran a Group Workplace Communication Survey to see why his last two organizational change projects didn’t work well. The survey results told Gary the #1 reason: 75% of his staff agreed that the most annoying and counter-productive issue they see in their workplace is this:

“Changes are implemented without discussing them with the people whose jobs will be affected by the change.”

Gary had done two of his three planned steps for improving productivity in the company. The first two changes took more than twice as long to complete as he had planned. And in both cases, people were unhappy about the way those changes “messed with their jobs”. Two people left to work for another company. Productivity slowed down, and clients mentioned more service problems than usual. The three steps of Gary’s plan were:

  1. A new software system would help people share documents and communicate in real-time.
  2. The financial and the accounting staff would relocate to the same floor in their office building which would reduce delays and increase information-sharing.
  3. The client services team would work with the financial and accounting groups to redesign client reports and the financial performance evaluation system.

Before Gary started the implementation of that third change, he wanted to find out what had caused the problems. Out of a total of 53 staff people in the company, 49 people took the Group Workplace Communication Survey to learn more about the communication issues that people see at work – and 36 people said that they had not been consulted about some of the changes made in other departments or groups. Two comments from Gary’s staff members:

  • “Our work uses data from both our Clients and the Finance group. Just because we now have a “real-time” communication system doesn’t mean that Finance will bother to put their new templates into that system. We lost 10 days on that one, and the Client was upset about it.”
  • I didn’t have a say in the kind of office furniture I got when we moved to the third floor. Now I don’t have room for my reading chair and side table. I feel like I’m working in a cubicle.

Everybody knows that “communication” can be improved. But what does that even mean? What kind of communication – and improved how? Gary got some specific answers, but most important to him was learning about “Understanding Conversations” – the dialogues to engage people in finalizing the details of a plan.

“I bought the software sales pitch,” Gary said. “They told me people loved the document-sharing system and would pick it up quickly. I never thought about getting everyone together to meet with the software team and discuss it as a group. And moving Finance and Accounting to share the same floor – well, I got their input on that, but I talked to each group separately, and we didn’t get into details about office arrangements and stuff.”

Too many changes fail – taking too long or costing too much – because the people whose daily work life will be changed didn’t have a say in what was going to happen. And they didn’t get to ask the questions about “little things” that employees knew to ask but the change agent did not.

“I won’t do the report and evaluation redesign changes without having a robust dialogue first,” Gary said. “It takes too much out of everybody to try and fix things after the fact. People felt hurt, and some were mad. My plan looked great on paper, it was approved by the other executives, and I talked to people about it before those steps were implemented. Turns out that was not sufficient. I learned something about implementing change: First, take the time for a dialogue with everybody whose work will be touched by it.

 

How to Have People be “Purpose-Driven” At Work

An article reporting on the Workforce Purpose Index findings says that companies with purpose-driven employees have better growth in revenue.  Their study found “three factors that contribute to an employee feeling like they have purpose at work:

  1. Independence;
  2. Influence when it comes to decision-making; and
  3. Recognition for their work.

How do you get those things into your workplace? Communication is your friend here. Let’s take those one at a time.

First, independence doesn’t mean people need to be free to do whatever they want at work. It means they know What results to produce (and what rules and regulations you need to follow), and When to produce them, and Why they matter. They can take it from there, without a lot of “micro-managing”, where the boss looks over their shoulder twice a day and says what to do differently. The part about saying Why the results matter, what they will be used for, or what difference they will make, is what creates a sense of purpose.

Second, influence in decision-making is a product of dialogue. Instead of just saying “Make X happen by time Y because it will be good for Z”, it helps to have a conversation about the X, Y, and Z. That means you add in the other three ingredients of a productive conversation:

  • Who else should be involved in this? Who has input? Who will evaluate?
  • Where will you get the resources you need? Where will the results go when they’re ready?
  • How should those results be produced? Any useful techniques or procedures?

The trick of dialogue is that it is Question-and-Answer: all participants get to ask questions, all participants get to contribute answers, ideas, and suggestions. People listen to the other people, and include the best of what’s offered. That dialogue is what gives people a sense of having an influence in decision-making – about their job, and about changes being made in their workplace.

Third, recognition doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy. Sometimes simply noticing – and saying – that someone completed a task or project is enough to create a sense of accomplishment. Of course, pay raises and better job titles are nice too, but just saying “Good job” goes a long way too.

I’d like to add one more ingredient to have people be purpose-driven at work: Make your mission, vision, and/or objective(s) present and real for people. Some workplaces have the mission on the wall in their conference room; lots of managers maintain a scoreboard in the corner of their whiteboard or update the status of their team’s current objectives in weekly emails to team members.

If we want people to be purpose-driven at work, we need to bring the purpose of their work into our conversations. Purpose lives in the way we give assignments, talk about the job to be done, and recognize the completion of a product or task.  We all like to know that our work matters, so let’s remember to mention how it matters and to whom. Really, even once a day is not too often.

Lost Productivity: Is the Culprit Social Media or Sloppy Communication?

Productivity is a big deal – the idea is to produce good hourly output at work, especially if you want to get a raise. An article (Why Your Facebook Habit At Work Makes Economists Worry) says that some people want to blame employees who are using social media for the recent drop in productivity. Another theory is that employers aren’t investing in better tools for their personnel. The reason for this is that “there aren’t any game-changing innovations to invest in”.

Seriously? Has anybody noticed that people don’t communicate productively? Recent examples in organizations I’ve been working with:

  • A company policy makes it clear that performance reviews must be updated annually. But in a brief survey of managers asked about performance evaluations, over 60% of them said, “We don’t really do many performance reviews here.” So, you don’t pay regular attention to productivity?
  • Sharon, a new manager, used a long weekend to map out the job responsibilities of her 14 staff members. She spelled out the details, put each “assignment” into a separate document, and emailed it to her people. When they arrived at work on Monday morning, they saw their updated job descriptions in their in-boxes. One of them said to me, “She didn’t even talk to us about this. Some of these tasks are outdated, and she left out other really important things we need to do. This is just stupid.” A lost weekend, and probably some lost trust too.
  • Robin asked Ted to pull together an RFP to get people who will help integrate and upgrade their auditing software. Five days later, Robin asks Ted if it’s done yet. Ted says, “You never said when you wanted it, so I haven’t even started. What is your deadline?” Five days misspent?

Communications that lack follow-through, or don’t include a dialogue with relevant parties, or fail to include timelines for assignments, will be ineffective. It impaired productivity in all three of these cases, and over a long career I have seen many more instances of such bumbling.

What about helping employees learn to communicate more effectively? Like, how to follow through on policy implementation to support people keeping up with corporate commitments. Or how to have a dialogue with other human beings about what is wanted and needed to update their job descriptions.Or how to practice adding “by when” to your requests.

The article ends with something that makes a lot of sense. A long-term answer to boosting productivity is (…drum roll please) better educated workers. I couldn’t agree more.

Three “Brexit” Lessons for Getting YOUR Goal

Did you notice that the “Remain” leaders in the United Kingdom – the ones who wanted to stay with the European Union – made some costly mistakes? It seems they had some lazy assumptions, and failed to deliver the well-designed conversations that could have painted a different picture for UK voters.

Mistake #1: Too few dialogues to create new understandings. It is foolish to think that people already understand the facts of a choice. A good leader will sustain dialogues to clarify the facts of the matter – so people can see them, ask questions, and create a positive relationship to what’s actually true.

UK voters did not know much about their country’s EU membership. Regular understanding conversations – those dialogues on Who does What, Where, and How – could have spelled out the roles and responsibilities of all EU members and clarified the facts in the arguments, from both sides, about what EU membership really entails – and what it doesn’t.

Alas, voters were energized by dramatic talk of “regaining sovereignty” and “immigrants stealing jobs”. They didn’t know that the UK’s sovereignty was not in question, and the UK was responsible for its own immigration policy.

Mistake #2. Too few communications on the value of what we have. A leader also cannot assume that voters will grasp the true costs and benefits of making a decision to stop doing something. They are so accustomed to the benefits of “the way things are” that they don’t see those things at risk. Spelling out the value of any particular decision is necessary – and must be done many times in many ways.

The “Remain” leaders forgot to remind people of the benefits of EU membership. Frequent “closure conversations” about what EU membership provides to the UK were missing: What good things did UK membership in the EU do for us this week? How did we profit from it this month? What have we gained from it this past year?

If the “Remain” leaders had done that, perhaps thousands of people wouldn’t have been Googling “What is the EU?” on the day after the vote.

Mistake #3: Giving away the initiative. Initiative conversations launch an idea by proposing something of value for the future: What do we want? When do we want it? Why does it matter? But those conversations can’t be a one-time thing. Leaders need to keep the mission, vision, and purpose (MVP) present every day. Find a way to talk about it, and make good slogans and visual reminders. Make it easy for people to understand what you want them to do that will create value for themselves.

The “Remain” leaders surrendered the game with their initiative. They failed to object to the referendum being called the “Brexit” (short for Britain exits the EU). If they had insisted on using the term “Bremain” in all media interactions, it would have given people a shorthand way to think of the value proposition for remaining in the EU. Instead, “Brexit” carried the day.

Note that what ultimately made the difference was leaders speaking, media talking, and people having conversations. Both sides communicating in many ways, all the time. One side won, and now almost nobody is happy about the uncertainty and costs of the whole mess.

Productive conversations matter, so let’s practice getting better at using them, shall we?

A Recipe for Little Changes – Organizational and Personal

Talking to two very different people this past few weeks, I was surprised to see how much their conversations had in common. The first was Elayne, a manager in a manufacturing facility, who dreaded making a change in her HR department.

“I don’t know how to update our employee timesheet system,” she said. “I mean, I know I can just substitute the old email templates for the new online reporting system. But how do you deal with the resistance ? Some people just won’t do it, and I’ll have to chase them down and have one-on-one begging sessions with them.”

The other was Darren, a father of four. “I wish I could improve weekends around our house,” he said. “The kids are doing a million different activities, and my wife and I spend time chauffeuring them around. Personal time to go to the gym is out of the question.”

I told them the “recipe” I had developed for making a change, whether personal or organizational:

  1. Get clear on what the change is, i.e., what needs to stop happening and what needs to start happening. Be sure to include timing, such as “a by-when date” or a recurring day like Saturdays.
  2. Schedule a time to meet with the key players – people who will be affected by the change – such as the different groups of employees, or the wife and kids.
  3. Have one or more discussions to clarify the change, and make a list (maybe on a flip chart?) of all the negatives – problems and challenges, sometimes called “resistance” – and all the positives: solutions, opportunities, and benefits. Allow “counteroffers” and “bargaining” on some points.
  4. Revise the definition of the change, including the timeline for implementing it, in a way that recognizes the input received from all those key players.
  5. Review the newly updated plan with the key players and establish agreement about what will be implemented, and how, when, and by whom each element will be done.

Elayne held four meetings – one with all the plant managers and supervisors, and three others with groups of employees who had been there more than 5 years. “It was actually kind of fun, with the guys teasing each other about revealing their overtime statistics. And we didn’t need second meetings: I just took the results of all the meetings and summarized them, then emailed everyone the link for our new timesheet and the date to start using it. We got 89% on-time submissions the first time around -amazing!”

Darren told me, “Our first meeting was noisy, but I wrote down the 4 problems and the 2 “good ideas” they offered. The second meeting was a week later, after they had time to think about it and talk it over with each other and with friends. We created a workable solution that included a car-pool arrangement with some of their friends’ parents and a change to my daughter’s dance-class schedule. I’m starting my new Saturday gym program a week from tomorrow. And my wife will be joining a Sunday afternoon book club. Peace reigns.”

Simple? Yes. Easy? Not necessarily. It takes willingness to practice The Four Conversations in the sequence above: (1) Initiative – have it well formulated before delivering it; (2) Request + Promise = Agreement on when to meet and discuss the proposed change. (3) Understanding – a dialogue to identify problems and benefits, along with what will be done and by whom; (4) Update the change statement using the language and ideas obtained from key players; and (5) Meet again to create an agreement for implementation that includes Who does What by When.

It may not be easy, but it can be done.

Want Something in 2016? Get Specific.

I remember many years ago telling my boss that I was frustrated with my work, and that what I really wanted to do with my life was to travel and to write. He had the perfect response.

“You already do that,” he said. “You commute almost 20 miles each way to work every day, and you write up analyses and reports on client problems and solutions. Congratulations! You have reached your goal!”

That’s the first time I realized that I would need to be more specific about what I wanted. General categories like “travel”, or clichés like “be successful” simply do not create a path to a desirable future – and they can be fulfilled by commuting to a job or getting a pat on the back.

I thought of that again a little while ago, when I remembered saying that I was going to create a “Writing Life”. I was frustrated with the stack of “distractions” on my desktop and in my email in-box: PowerPoints to be written up for a presentation I’m giving; a promotion to write up for one of our online products; a request to write a reference letter for a friend; notes to friends who sent me holiday cards; revising a section of my husband’s academic paper on leadership – etc. etc. etc.

It’s all writing, right? Is this what the Writing Life looks like? It isn’t what I had hoped.

We think it’s easy to make promises to do or deliver something, or to make requests for resources or support. But when we are not specific about exactly what we want, when we want it, and why it matters, we can’t have a Performance Conversation. When we are not specific about who to communicate with, where we are going, or how we want to get there, we can’t have an Understanding Conversation.  What we have is a wish.

I was not creating a clear destination, nor committing to a path and process for the Writing Life. I was wishing.

So now I’m going to spend some time getting clearer about what I mean by a “Writing Life”. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”. I would add that the unintentional life isn’t worth much either. Serendipity is fine, but it’s not a substitute for aiming, steering, or directing – those things require specifics.

I would rather “lead” my life than to drift with the current, so it’s time to get specific about the future I intend to create. Many thanks to that boss for his wise words that have lasted so many years!

Getting Other People to Do Stuff

A recent review of manager comments on their workplace communication was very revealing: they didn’t get the idea of dialogue. Two-way talking was not recognized as a tool for getting things done on time and on budget. Here are two samples of their management “conversations” for getting people to perform:

  • “I think we need to get these customer responses reviewed and organized, then prepare a plan for how to improve our customer service and support processes.”
  • “Let’s identify what we need to do in order to improve our in-house communications, and then we can prioritize the ideas and start solving the issues one at a time.”

Neither one of these statements – and they are statements, not conversations – should give the manager any confidence that something will get done, much less with any urgency. An “Initiative Conversation” is simply a proposal for a good idea. Both of those statements qualify as proposals. But a proposal may not get anything into action, much less produce a result.

That’s why the next step would be an “Understanding Conversation” – a dialogue that gives the other people involved a chance to talk about the proposal. They can contribute ideas and clarify the specifics and expectations for actions and results. They can have a conversation to develop the proposal, including timelines and connections to other projects, in a way that increases the odds of success. Managers who seek input from others are much more effective in having their proposals move toward action.

Going a step further, “Performance Conversations” actually produce the action. The manager launches the dialogue to clarify which people will do the specific tasks and produce specific results. This dialogue is a tool for clarifying assignments: Who will do What + by When it will be performed + Why it matters. That sets up the possibility of people being accountable for keeping their agreements to perform.

Initiative conversations are a good start, but no manager can count on getting reliable results by just proposing a “good idea”. If we practice engaging other people in dialogues that build alignment on specifics and agreements for action, we are more likely to be successful in making something happen.