Tag Archives: communication

Whose Problem is It?

“Tomorrow is Saturday,” I said. “Rachel has an 8-hour shift. For the past two weeks, she left early, with work undone. The first Saturday, you were furious. The second Saturday, you were calm, but she still left early. What will be different tomorrow?”

“Lots will be different,” Karyn replied. “I took what you said about seeing Rachel as a person, instead of as an employee. As long as I saw Rachel as an employee, her leaving early was my problem. Only when I saw Rachel as a person, did I realize it was her problem. I also realized, if I saw Rachel as a person, why would I wait until Saturday to help her, when I know that is the day of something going on, in conflict with her schedule at work. So, I asked her to lunch on Friday.”

“And?”

“At first, she thought it was a trap, but she agreed to show up. And, we just talked about her. She is in a custody battle with her ex, and she is losing. Three weeks ago, she was late to soccer practice because we made her stay over 15 minutes. So, her ex took the child and she missed the one night a week she has with her kid. She vowed to herself never to let that happen again. She was embarrassed to ask for the time off, but the tension on Saturday, knowing if she was late, that she would not see her kid for another week, it just came out.”

“And?”

“I am the manager. I control resources and scheduling. I asked Rachel, if I could schedule her to leave a half-hour early, if that would help? Turns out, Rachel’s behavior had nothing to do with me, or respect, or authority.”

“I know this conversation seems to be about Rachel and what we learned about her, but what did you learn about yourself?”

Do You Think the Race is Over?

“I changed,” Karyn replied. “But the outcome was still the same. Rachel left early and the work was still undone.”

“Do you think the race is over?” I asked. “What will you do this Saturday?”

“Yelling didn’t work, being nice didn’t work. I don’t know.” Karyn was stumped.

“Were you just being nice, or was there a more subtle shift in you? During all the yelling and Rachel leaving in a huff, how did you see Rachel? Was she a vehicle for you to get stuff done, or an obstacle in the way of getting stuff done?”

“Both,” Karyn flatly stated. “She was supposed to get stuff done, and left it all in my lap when she left.”

“And, last Saturday, you had an early conversation during her shift, when things were calm. Who was Rachel to you then?”

“Well, I treated her more like a person, then.”

“She was no longer something you were driving or an obstacle in the way? She was a person?”

Karyn did not respond to the question.

“You changed,” I said. “You made a shift in the way you saw Rachel. Who are you going to be this Saturday?”

She Still Left Early

“What was different from this past Saturday, than the Saturday before?” I asked.

“The Saturday before,” Karyn started, “Rachel left early in a huff. This Saturday, I talked to her early in the shift, in a calmer conversation. She still left early, but not in a huff. So, I don’t know that I made any progress. She clocked out early and left work to be done.”

“And, how did you feel about yourself, from one Saturday to the next?”

“What’s the difference in the way I felt? The outcome was the same.”

“How did you feel about yourself, from one Saturday to the next?” I repeated.

“A week ago, I was pissed. As the supervisor, I was disrespected. I lost control. I am certain my manager was disappointed with me. The weekend work was left undone and we had to double-up on Monday to catch up.”

“What was different this past Saturday?”

“I thought I headed things off by having a calm conversation. I acknowledged there may be circumstances outside of work that were having an impact inside at work.”

“You were the same two people, on the same Saturday shift, Rachel still left early. Between the two of you, who was different?”

“Well, I was much calmer,” Karyn replied.

“What changed in you?”

Third Leg on the Stool

“More?” Phillip asked.

“Phillip, one of the biggest mistakes a company makes when it hires people, is underestimating what is required for the person to be effective in the position. The role of a Project Manager requires a new skill set, a skill set that most companies never train.”

“We talked about schedules and checklists, but you said there was another tool, a third leg.”

I nodded. “Perhaps the most important tool. Meetings. Most PMs know they need to have meetings, but they just gut their way through. Nobody likes their meetings. The team would skip them if they could. Participation by team members hardly exists.

“Think what a meeting could be. It makes communication consistent because everyone hears the same thing. It provides the opportunity for interactive participation and questions. It encourages participation and promotes buy-in. It can be used as an accountability tool.

“But effective meetings rarely happen, because most managers don’t know how.” Phillip’s turn to nod. It began to sink in. Running the job is completely different than doing the job.

Twinges in the Stomach

Charlie was in my office yesterday. We talked about mostly nothing for a half a minute, when I suddenly became uncomfortable. Something happened inside of me, mostly with my stomach. I wasn’t in discomfort, but there was a significant twinge.

The twinge in my stomach was caused by a short silence, a white space in the conversation. I asked a question about Charlie’s last meeting with his boss. There was no response from Charlie. Silence in a conversation often causes a momentary awkwardness.

I don’t know where this conversation is going next? I thought I knew, but I don’t know now. I wish I knew, but I still don’t know. I hope this conversation get some direction soon, because this awful silence is killing me. BOOM. My stomach told me we were talking about something more important than the weather.

My automatic (unconscious) reaction was to avoid. Do anything to make this feeling go away. The silence was awkward. The automatic (unconscious) response was simply to “talk.” Make the silence go away. If I talk, the silence will be gone, the awkwardness will be gone and I won’t feel this way. Talking would also likely steer the conversation back to a discussion of the weather.

Channel the reaction. My bio-response to Charlie was a twinge in the stomach. The twinge told me that this conversation had potential to be more meaningful. I could avoid it or I could engage. Avoidance would be easy, simply talk to fill the silence, talk about anything.

OR,

I could engage, and let the silence continue. I could let the silence do the heavy lifting to move this conversation to the next level. Something significant had happened between Charlie and his boss and Charlie needed to talk about it. We could have talked about sports, or we could have engaged in a meaningful discussion that had real impact on Charlie.

The twinge in the stomach gives the Manager a heightened sense of intuition and the possibility to channel the reaction to a more productive outcome. Listen to the twinges, watch for white space in conversations.

Translator Role

My conversation with Tony (S-II) about his manager, Suzanne (SIV) –
I have to tell you, every time we get together, all she talks about is pie-charts, bar graphs and the big picture. It’s different down on the shop floor. Sometimes we get materials in from our vendors that are out of spec and we have to reject them. When we reject raw materials, sometimes our productivity goes down. And, remember the machine we were going to replace this year, but kicked it into next year’s capital budget. That machine breaks down a little more than it used to and when it does, our productivity goes down. I try to explain this stuff to Suzanne and she just keeps talking about the big picture.

My conversation with Suzanne about her team member, Tony –
Don’t listen to Tony, he gets all wrapped around the detail and loses sight of the big picture. He just doesn’t understand what we are all about here.

Not a personality conflict –
When we introduce the context of time span, we can clearly see the reason for this conflict. Tony is in a role with shorter time span decisions and problems, clearly having difficulty with the way Suzanne sees the world. Suzanne is in a role with longer time span decisions and problems, clearly having difficulty with the way Tony sees the world.

Translator –
The translator role (S-III) sits in between Suzanne (S-IV) and Tony (S-II), who can translate Suzanne’s big picture thinking (that is what we hired her for) into time span appropriate projects that Tony can drive on the production floor.

But, My Team Gives Me the Wrong Answer

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Question:
I use questions to coach my team members, and they provide answers but not always the right answer. As a result, the conversation can appear like an inquisition. It’s challenging, at that time, not to revert to “telling” rather than “asking“.

Response:
If you are asking a question and you don’t get the response you want, it’s not because the response is wrong, it’s because you are asking the wrong question. -Tom

Breakdown in Communication is Only the Symptom

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You talk about how most problems are structural problems. I don’t get it. Our company has a communication problem. Because people don’t talk to each other, at the right time, balls get dropped. If we could just communicate better, things would go smoother.

Response:
You think you have a communication problem. And, you can have all the communication seminars you want, you will still have breakdowns in communication and balls will still get dropped.

You have a communication symptom of a structural problem. Structure is the defined accountability and authority in working relationships. You have a communication symptom because the working relationship between two people was never clearly defined.

As the manager, you know specific information should be communicated at a specific time, and you assume the two teammates will figure out what (needs to be communicated) and when. So, when that doesn’t happen, you think you have a communication problem. That is only the symptom.

The communication never happened, or didn’t happen at the right time, because, as the manager, you never required the information be passed on at a specific time. As the manager, you never defined the accountability in the working relationship, so the two teammates were left to twist in the wind.

You have a structural problem (defined accountability), with a communication symptom. Define the specific accountability and the communication symptom fixes itself.
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Not a Lot of Listening

“The biggest difficulty we have,” Susan insisted, “is communication.”

I nodded. “How so?”

“Well, sometimes it seems we are not even on the same team. I give instructions, I hold meetings, but when somebody has to coordinate with someone else, it always seems like the ball gets dropped.”

“What do you think the problem is?” I asked.

“It seems that when I do the talking, there’s not a lot of listening.”

“And that surprises you?” I smiled.

“No. But, as the manager, I expect my team to listen when I talk to them,” Susan shook her from side to side, impatiently.

“Oh, so this is your team’s fault?”

Susan was no dummy. She sensed I was setting her up. “Well, okay, I know I am 50 percent to blame,” she relented.

“And what would you do differently, if I told you that you were 100 percent accountable for your team’s complete understanding? You, as the manager, are 100 percent responsible for the effectiveness of the communication. What would you do differently?”

What Were They Thinking?

“I don’t understand,” Geoff began. “We had a meeting. I explained the new way things were going to be done. A couple of people asked questions. Everyone on the team agreed.”

“And?” I asked.

“And when I took a look at the work today, nothing was changed. It was done the same as before without the changes,” he replied. “I don’t know what they are thinking.”

“If you want to know what someone is thinking, watch what they do. People say and agree to all kinds of things. As a manager, never mistake what someone says for what they can do or will do. Don’t listen for their agreement, watch what they do.”