As an interim manager, I rely on networks to find my next assignment. Many of the people in my immediate network I have known for years, but I still make sure I keep in touch. It only needs the occasional coffee, phone call or email. With newer contacts that I know less well, I make more effort to build the relationship. Most of those people will never give me any work. It is not that they don’t want to, but possible assignments depend on relevant needs coming up. From a hard-nosed point of view, as an investment perhaps my effort is not worth it. But I keep in touch because I want to maintain the relationships, not because they might lead to work. I believe that the willingness to meet would soon dry up if people felt I was only there to sell. I spend quite a lot of my free time supporting my University’s alumni relations. We all know that in the end there is only one reason why universities have become so keen on keeping in touch with alumni recently. They want our money. However, donations do not just happen. Unless there is an overt exchange (e.g. we will name xxx after you in return), persuading people to give depends on the relationship you have with them. And relationships are really between people, not between people and organisations. I build relationships with fellow alumni through activities we share only because I – and they – value the relationships themselves. If that builds engagement with the University and leads to giving, that’s good, but it is never the point. Indeed, raising the subject of fundraising at all would put some people off engaging, so it is off-limits.
Relationship building sows seedsThe point of relationship building and maintaining networks is to create a fertile seed-bed for what you hope will germinate in the future. The gardener can dig the soil, add compost, and provide water. He can provide the conditions for successful germination. The miracle of germination though comes from the seeds themselves.
… there was a manager who told stories … a salesman who told stories … a consultant who told stories … Story-telling is universal. Every culture, every people, everywhere, tells and always has told stories. It does not matter whether they are told in the dark round an open fire, or in a bright, comfortable house, or an office – the power of stories is the same. Stories are almost as much a part of being human as breathing. Stories help us to make sense of the world. Whatever situation we encounter in life, we instinctively look for a story that is similar it. A story that shows we are not on our own. It gives us confidence that we can cope. It shows us possible solutions to our problems. It helps us to cut through the messy complexity of real life to get to what really matters. Every time I want to communicate something, in the end it comes down to telling a story. Sometimes that just means putting the argument I want to make into story-form – a beginning, a middle and an end, with a logical flow of one thing leading to another – but more often it is finding examples of past experience that seem to have similarities, and using them to illustrate my ideas.
Stories evolveWhat is interesting is that over the years, and through many re-tellings, some of the stories I use take on a life of their own. When I tell a story, inevitably I’ll change the emphasis. I bring out the most useful bits and skim over the less useful ones. In time, I forget the detailed bits I don’t usually include. Perhaps other bits get simplified to make the point more clearly. What I ‘remember’ evolves, simplifying, clarifying, and becoming ever more useful as an example as it goes. The strange thing about this process is that others who were present at the original events rarely disagree with the story that is told later. It seems what matters is to hear the story told, not that it should match our own (uncertain) memories exactly. It is this simplified story that becomes the shared memory of the event for the group. Come to think of it, that refining is what has been happening for thousands of years. Perhaps it explains why the ancient myths and legends are still so powerful!
There you are, head down in a report, a spreadsheet, or some other urgent bit of business. There’s a knock, and your mind returns to your desk from miles away. Someone says they have a problem and can they talk it over with you please? An interruption. What are you going to say? Your work is high-value, it takes real concentration, and you need to keep your focus to get it done right. On the other hand, if you send them away, you may be telling them that you do not value them and what they do. Of course my own work seems urgent, but I know I’ll get it done one way or another. My colleague on the other hand is important, because it is essential for the longer term that they feel valued. I could easily – and quickly – damage a relationship I have taken a long time to build. I know they would not interrupt me when I’m busy unless they felt it was important. It is really important to give them something to show that I’m taking them seriously. Even if I decide I can only spare 5 minutes now, I’ll always offer that as a first step, at least to give them things to be thinking about until I can pay full attention. If I give them proper respect, value them, take their problems seriously, I find that they respect me back – and interruption is rare unless it really is necessary. So if you really can't deal with the interruption fully there and then, at least find some compromise. It will pay you back in the long run.
A long time ago, I proposed an important change to a committee of senior colleagues. The overall intent was hardly arguable, and I had carefully thought out the details. Overall, it got a good hearing. But then the trouble started. One manager picked on a point of detail which he didn’t like. OK, I thought, I can find a way round that. But then other managers piled in, some supporting my position on that, but objecting to different details. The discussion descended into a squabble about detailed points on which no-one could agree, and as a result the whole project was shelved despite its overall merits. I learnt an important lesson from that experience. When a collective decision is required, detail is your enemy. Most projects will have – or at least may be perceived to have – some negative impacts on some people, even though overall they benefit everyone. Maybe someone loses autonomy in some area, or needs to loan some staff. Maybe there is some overlap with a pet project of their own. Whatever the reason, providing detail at the outset makes those losses visible, and can lead to opposition based on self-interest (even if that is well-concealed) which kills the whole project. As we all know, you can’t negotiate with a committee. So what is the answer? The approach I have found works best is to start by seeking agreement for general principles with which the implementation must be consistent. The absence of detail means that the eventual impacts on individual colleagues are uncertain, and consequently the discussion is more likely to stay focused on the bigger picture. Ideally you are given authority to implement within the approved principles. But even if you have to go back with a detailed plan, once the committee has approved the outcome and the principles to be followed it is much harder for them to reject a solution that sticks to those, let alone to kill the project. Looking at the wider world, perhaps the Ten Commandments of the Bible provide a good example of this approach. For a more business-relevant example, see my earlier posts on the principles behind good internal governance. More generally, defining top-level principles is also the key to delegating decision-making to local managers. It means that they can make decisions which take proper account of local conditions, while ensuring that decisions made by different managers in different areas all have an underlying consistency.
Many years ago, I was given a piece of advice by a sales manager colleague which has stuck with me ever since: “God gave you two ears and one mouth. Use them in those proportions!” This is not just about sales in the formal sense. Whenever we are trying to influence people for any kind of outcome – and let’s face it, that is most of the time – we should remember it. Where does influence come from? To gain influence, first we need to be trusted. People need to believe that we are behaving with integrity, that we have their interests in mind, not just our own. Naturally it is best if that is actually true. Second, we need to be respected (in fact, ‘respect for’ is almost shorthand for ‘willing to be influenced by’). Much of respect comes from a perception that we speak with authority, which presupposes trust in what we say. How do we establish trust? That is where the ears come in. Sadly, the experience of many people in many organisations is that managers never find the time to listen to them properly. Even if you are sitting in front of him or her, it may be clear that the manager’s mind is only half on the conversation you are trying to have. How can you know what matters to someone if you don’t listen when they tell you? If you don’t know, how can you be trusted to look after them? Those ears are very powerful! As a change manager, listening is a particularly powerful tool. It is a truism that most people dislike change, but I believe that much of that is about feeling they have no voice in it. Even when people come into a meeting feeling angry about a change that is being imposed on them, it always amazes me how much more acceptance can be achieved simply by spending time really listening to them tell you what they don’t like – even if you can’t alter it. Good listening involves the mouth as well: how do they know you heard them if you don’t play it back? Once you have listened and built some trust, you are in a position to build respect too: by explaining the changes in a way that relates to their concerns but is anchored in reason. They will still need to move through the change curve, but by using your ears and your mouth in the right ways and the right proportions you can make that easier for everyone.
I have been reading Brene Brown’s best seller “Daring Greatly”, which I think has some profound lessons for leaders. That prompted me to reflect on a recent problem I had at work. Like most managers, I have occasionally had to talk to one of my staff about shortcomings in their performance, and I had another instance recently. I’m sure that few managers start a performance management conversation lightly, because deliberately choosing the uncertainty of potential conflict and relationship damage is uncomfortable. Some managers never find the courage to go there at all. On the other hand, as a manager I know that I easily forget that such a conversation is usually at least as stressful for the staff member. Neither of us want to be having the conversation; certainly neither of us want to have to repeat it. Both of us tend to exaggerate the power the other has in the situation – as a result, both of us feel vulnerable, which for most people is a profoundly uncomfortable place to be, and so can lead to unhelpful behaviours. The problem is likely to appear to be a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser. However, there is another way of looking at it. Provided we are careful not to take advantage, that mutual vulnerability can be a foundation for strengthened and renewed trust, which in turn may mean that the staff member cares more about the improvements you seek. Taking that approach may well give you the best chance of a successful outcome, but to do so requires you to be careful to avoid hiding behind the power of your authority as a manager. To do that takes courage – but done with openness and integrity it can work. Obviously every situation is different, but a good place to start is with an honest and straightforward explanation of how the person’s actions are making you feel, avoiding emotive language. If the other person feels it is safe to reciprocate, and to help you to understand their point of view, you have a chance of working out how to improve things together. That's real performance management! You may even finish up with both of you feeling you are winners: more cake for both of you, not different shares.
As a consultant, I have many discussions with people who might be future clients. I never quite know at the start of the conversation where it will go – I’m there to listen for the opportunity, to understand what the client needs (perhaps before they do), and to help them to decide whether I might be an effective part of the answer, whatever it might be. Until they explain their situation, I can’t tell where we may finish up. Even so, I was taken aback recently when I was told quite out of the blue at the start of a client meeting that I thought was going to be the usual consultant’s exploratory discussion, that it was effectively an interview for a senior role in their team (I’ll talk about miscommunications another time!). My immediate reaction was to express my surprise at this turn of events, while inwardly panicking slightly and trying to think very fast about what this role would involve, what experience I would therefore need to tell them about, and whether I even thought I could do it. Afterwards I realised that although I had gone into the meeting with my flexible ‘I’m a consultant, just tell me what the problem is’ hat on, the hat was not that flexible. It took me a few minutes to adjust to the new situation, and to feel comfortable again. We all put ourselves in boxes – even ones with somewhat flexible walls, or room to rattle about in – all the time. The walls of the boxes are safe and comforting. Outside the walls lies danger (at least that’s how it feels) – but also opportunity. How hard it is to allow ourselves to be born into that new world of wider opportunity – but like birth, how essential it is if we are to grow!
A few years ago, I was attending a meeting which was a few minutes’ drive from my office. I left a little later than I intended, and although the roads were quiet, when I arrived I had to park further way from my destination than I had expected. The extra walk meant that I arrived at the meeting, which had started promptly, a couple of minutes late. Naturally, I apologised for my lateness and explained what had happened as I sat down, thinking little of it. It was only two minutes after all. I was completely taken aback when the chair of the meeting replied in an angry voice “Two minutes can cost a life”. I should explain that he was an ex-military man, and I can understand that being late for a rendez-vous on active service could have very serious consequences. However, not only were no lives going to be lost as a result of my lateness to that meeting; no lives were likely to be lost as a result of anyone there being late to any meeting, ever.
Use criticism carefullyI might have been held up by a phone call to an important customer; I might have been resolving an important safety issue; I don’t remember. In business we are always having to balance multiple priorities, and I probably made a priority choice that I felt was in the best interests of the company. So first of all, it is always a good idea to understand the reasons for what has happened before criticising. But just as important is to make the criticism (if there needs to be one) commensurate with the offence and appropriate to the circumstances. Criticising me in a way that might conceivably have been appropriate in the army, but took no account of a completely different context, diminished my respect for the manager and left me feeling angry at his irrationality. As a result, at the very least it reduced the value of my contribution to that meeting, while I fumed; it probably had much longer-term consequences for our wider relationship. Criticism is a dangerous weapon. Used carelessly, the unintended consequences can be serious.
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"] English: Terraced house façades, Montague Street See also 1608624 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)[/caption] I’ll never forget my first serious experience of negotiation. I was selling my first house, a small, terraced house in a cheap part of the city. I loved it, because it was the first house I had owned, and because I had put a lot of work – and a lot of myself – into it. I had decorated every room; I had refitted the kitchen; I had installed central heating to replace electric storage heaters. I was moving to a new area, where I knew housing was going to be a lot more expensive. I had received an offer to buy my house from a junior colleague at work. Obviously that made things slightly awkward to start with. But I was unprepared for what happened when he asked if he could visit again, with a family friend. They duly arrived, and I showed them around. The family friend, an older gentleman, was very appreciative, admiring everything I had done, complimenting me on my workmanship, and so on. And then, at the end of the visit, he pitched me a new price, substantially lower than the offer my colleague had previously made. I was caught off guard. Having refused the new price, I felt I had to respond to his questions, starting with what was the lowest price I would accept? He came back with requests to throw in this and that if they agreed to a higher price, and so on. We eventually agreed a deal – which actually was not such a bad deal from my point of view – but I was left feeling bruised. Looking back, I have to admire the technique. All the praise, all the efforts to make me feel good first, worked a treat, and there was nothing in the negotiation itself that I could criticise. He did a good job for my colleague. So why did I feel bruised? The one thing that was missing in the exchange was creating an honest expectation. I had been led to believe that the friend was there to give a second opinion. It was my colleague’s first house purchase, just as it had been mine, so understandably he wanted someone else to endorse his judgement. I had not expected that the friend was there to negotiate on his behalf – after all, an offer had already been made. Perhaps I was a bit naïve, but I was caught unprepared; the negotiation had high financial and emotional value for me, and I had no experience of handling something like that. I felt that I was backed into a corner, and that personal trust had been breached. So what is the lesson? Don’t just play fair – make sure everyone knows what game you are going to be playing beforehand, especially if personal relationships are involved. Trust is too important, and too hard to rebuild, to risk losing.
How often have you found yourself having a conversation, and it gradually dawning on you that the person you are talking to thinks the conversation is about something quite different to what you thought? It happens to us all from time to time, and normally it causes at worst mild embarrassment as one of you says, ‘hang on a minute, I thought we were talking about x’ and the other looks bemused. Sometimes though, miscommunication can cause real problems.
E-mail FireworksPerhaps the most common place for miscommunication to cause problems in the working world is in e-mails. Maybe the relationship is a bit sticky already, or perhaps the subject is emotive. You write an e-mail, for example telling someone what you are going to do. Writing the message down gives you a chance to choose the words carefully so that they can’t be misinterpreted, right? Wrong! Within a few microseconds of pressing the ”send” button, you notice that your computer has started to smoke from the heat in the reply that has just clanged into your inbox. You read it – how could they have misunderstood your intentions so wildly? They must be spoiling for a fight! Your emotion finds its way into your reply, and the exchange just escalates. E-mail fireworks are never productive. Why are e-mails so fraught? Mainly, they are too easy. We dash them off with little thought. For straightforward factual messages that is not a problem. The trouble comes when the exchange has some (often unexpected) emotional content. Although they seem like a way of keeping the emotion out and so appear to be an easy option, humans are emotional creatures: we don’t often do purely rational. Be especially careful when you are worried about the reaction, and it feels safer to keep your distance. By omitting the emotional context of the message, which we detect mostly from body language and tone of voice, we take away the very cues which would help the recipient to know whether we meant to be provocative or were just not choosing our words very well. Poorly-chosen words in the context of a friendly tone and an open expression will usually only prompt clarification, but without these, people usually assume the worst. Here are five tips for minimising the risk of e-mail fireworks, and getting things back on track if necessary:
- If you think the message might have some emotional content, don’t rely on e-mail if you can possibly avoid it. Start the exchange face-to-face, or at least with a phone call, so that there is an emotional context. Only once the tone has been set should you follow it up with an email.
- If you didn’t think the message was emotional, but the response appears to be – or even just indicates misunderstanding - never send an email reply. Pick up the phone straight away to clarify, or go and see them if you can.
- If you have to send an email which you know may be emotive, save a draft overnight before sending it, and re-read it in the morning. You have a better chance then of seeing how someone else might mis-interpret your words, and stopping it before it is too late. I rarely find I change nothing the next day!
- For really sensitive messages which you have to put in writing, ask someone else to check your words before you send them.
- If an exchange has gone emotional, apologise face to face – even if you don’t think you have anything to apologise for.