The Year Ahead [New Post]

Thank you all for listening to my podcast, reading my posts, and sending kudos, queries, and quirky questions. As we close out 2017 and step into 2018, I want to share a few words about what you can expect from staying in conversation with me.

  • Growing as a leader and human being in organizations. This remains the primary focus of my podcast, blog, and client work. What can we learn about this process from different teachers, studies, experts, traditions, and organizations?
  • In-depth interviews. I’m committed to providing high-quality, in-depth interviews that make you think. I pick guests whose work I admire and ask them to dive deeply. These folks have a lot to say, so I give them the spotlight and challenge them to stretch their own thinking an extra inch.
  • Accomplishing work together by managing promises. My clients are reporting a great deal of benefit from an approach to collaborative work that I call “managing promises.” I’m using it with teams and individuals to produce better results with fewer headaches. (If you’d like to talk about using this with your team, send me a note). You may recognize this theme from past interviews with Elizabeth Doty about making only promises you can keep, Bob Dunham on listening for commitment and executives’ new promises, and Chris Chittenden on real accountability. Why do so many handoffs between people go awry? Why is it frustrating when people don’t give you what you ask for and yet so challenging to talk with them about this in a way that improves future results? What happens when you make more powerful offers in your organization, and what specific steps are needed to do this? How can you raise the performance of your entire team by learning the real anatomy of action? I’ve taken many of these ideas (originally from Fernando Flores’s “conversation for action”) and fleshed them out into a comprehensive model called the “promise cycle”. I’ve written a short yet fairly technical playbook about this called Reliable Results. In the coming year, I’ll be doing more interviews and Jedi Leadership Tricks on this topic, posting more diagrams like Fuzzy Promises, Fuzzy Mittens, and continuing to share it with teams. I think there is great potential to do for managing promises with others what David Allen has done with managing agreements with yourself.
  • The American experience with race—a new series. Most conversation about race in the United States is simplistic, polemical, and poorly grounded in history. We are arguing past each other rather than listening to each other, focusing only on the latest outrages, and not sufficiently integrating different perspectives. To me, it’s a huge leadership topic, something that can inform how we understand ourselves and the people we work with even when the topic at hand is not about race. That’s because to talk with wisdom about race is to talk about what it means to be human beings in all our beautiful complexity. I’ll be asking podcast guests to explore this topic with me in an integral way. We’ll delve into individual beliefs and behaviors, culture, and societal structures.
  • Synthesizing key concepts. Several listeners have recently challenged me to share my own understanding on the many ideas I explore with guests. To synthesize and illuminate what I’ve been learning. Expect to see at least a couple forays in this direction in the coming year.

Once again, thank you for walking with me on this journey. Anything in this note strike you as particularly important? Have any other suggestions for me. I welcome your emails!

 

Episode 69: Executives’ New Promises With Bob Dunham [The Amiel Show]

Bob-Dunham

This week on the podcast, I welcome back Bob Dunham to discuss the transition from manager to executive.

Bob heads up the Institute for Generative Leadership, where for three decades he has developed leaders and coaches.

In episode 7, he described how to make reliable promises and the importance of listening for commitment.

This time, we explored how becoming an executive involves a new category of promises. Skillfully managing these promises requires new conversations, skills, and presence. Why do many people fail in transitioning to the executive role? What does it take to cross this chasm successfully? How can you prepare yourself for the transition?

Join Bob and me as we delve into these questions and more.

And, as always, share with friends who might enjoy these insights.

Highlights

  • 9:00 People are often blind to the outcome
  • 17:00 When you have plans but no promises
  • 21:30 Not having honest conversations is a setup for failure
  • 28:30 Blind spot: the learning path for new managers
  • 40:00 Good managers assess their direct reports’ assessments
  • 42:00 Executives’ new promises and conversations
  • 53:00 It’s all about what we listen for

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Fuzzy Promises, Fuzzy Mittens

Mitten weather is a few months away in Oregon. Promises, on the other hand, are year-round.

In rain, shine, and snow, clear promises improve trust and results.

And fuzzy promises?

Example 1

“Can you meet the rest of the team outside the lab tomorrow at noon?”

“I’ll try.”

Example 2

“I really need that report by October 1. Can you do it?”

“Maybe.”

Example 3

“If I go out on a limb this afternoon, would you be willing to back me up?”

“Sure” [in a soft and uncertain voice]

The Basic Equation

Request + Acceptance = Promise

The Fuzzy Promise Equation

Request + Ambiguous Response = Fuzzy Promise + Confusion + Resentment

 

That time he didn’t cancel his request [New Post]

When historians look back at my son’s outburst after I wiped his nose with a Kleenex (described last week), they will highlight his rage and my awkward response. A classic case of resenting unwanted help.

But what if things had turned out differently? What if I had found a way to put the mucus back in his nose—and keep it there? (You managerial experts know why: first attract, then retain). And what if, during the time I was prototyping this innovation, my son had changed his mind yet not informed me?

“Daddy, I don’t want the mucus in my nose!”

History books would have recorded this incident differently. Chapter 7: An Uncanceled Request Starts a War. In this rendering, my son would be the villain, and I would be the furious one.

Sound familiar? It’s the most frustrating thing. You get something done for another person. You take care to deliver “to spec.” Then, when you give it to them, they say, “Thanks, but I didn’t need that after all.”

People give this different names: “He’s jerking me around.” “She’s doesn’t care.” “I don’t trust him.” “She is oblivious.”

Or simply WTF!

These responses are understandable yet unproductive.

Ascribing motivation to the other person in this situation has two flaws:

  1. You don’t know their intent, only what they did.
  2. It’s not actionable. What are you going to do, say to them “Stop jerking me around?” How’s that going to turn out?

I prefer to call their behavior failing to cancel a request. It’s both more accurate and more actionable.

Here’s what I mean by canceling a request: They ask you to do something, then change their mind. The responsible thing for them to do is immediately reach out to you and say, “You know that thing I asked you to do? I just learned that I don’t need it any more. I’m canceling my request.” They can apologize, add a bunch of niceties, and so on, but the key is to say “request cancelled!”

Benefits

Canceling a request has three benefits:

  1. You can redirect your energies to other commitments.
  2. You know they respect your time so you feel better—maybe not happy, but also not resentful.
  3. They don’t have to avoid you in the hallway.

The same holds true if you are the one canceling the request.

Upshot

  1. If people fail to cancel a request to you, don’t call them names. Ask them to cancel their requests in the future.
  2. If you do this to others, stop. Instead, as soon as you know you don’t need something, let them know.

Why people resent your help [new post]

Helping others succeed in their jobs requires more than generosity. You need to understand what matters to them. For example, have you ever started counseling a direct report about his career and then noticed that he wanted to bolt the room? Or given a peer resources for her big project, then found yourself on the receiving end of a stiff arm?

That’s not fun. Surely, there is better way to give people the help they actually want. What is it?

The Case of the Runny Nose

I got a clue to this mystery a few months ago with my then four-year-old son. His nose was running, but he wasn’t doing anything about it. Like a good parent, I grabbed a Kleenex and gently wiped his nose. Easy peasy, right?

Not according to my son.

“Daddy, I want my mucus back.”

Ugh.

“It’s in the tissue.” I opened it up to show him.

“No, Daddy. I want my mucus back in my nose!”

That’s a new one, I thought. How do you get mucus back in the nose? I starting racking my brain for possible methods.

“Daddy you are stupid!”

Could you simmer down? I’m trying to figure out a way to defeat gravity and reverse your body’s natural physiological processes?

“Daddy why are you so stupid?

“Look, Z, I know you’re upset. Give me a minute.” Doesn’t he know that I’m working hard on his original request? I don’t have time for new questions. Plus, I haven’t yet figured out why I am so stupid.

“Daddy why are you a butt face?”

“Z, you know that in our family that’s not how we talk about people.” This isn’t going well. And I’ve lost my train of thought.

“Daddy I don’t like you.”

No good deed goes unpunished. 

I grabbed the Kleenex, marched into the kitchen, and threw it into the trash can.

Surely there is a better way to give people the help they want.

My mistake in this situation (one of many) was to wipe my son’s nose without first asking him. I acted physically without first making an offer. My son had no opportunity to signal whether or not he wanted my help. Because I didn’t make an offer, he had no freedom to accept my offer, decline it, or make a counteroffer (“Hand me the tissue. I’ll wipe it myself”). He experienced me as acting on him unilaterally rather than with him in a spirit of mutuality.

Lessons

I was reminded of five principles of helping people through offers.
  1. People like to choose whether or not to receive help.
  2. Making an offer gives them an opportunity to choose.
  3. To make an offer powerful, ground it in what matters to them—something they actually want or care about.
  4. There is no promise without an acceptance. Offer + Acceptance = Promise
  5. The other person has four legitimate ways to respond to your offer: accept, decline, counteroffer (a different What and/or When), and promise to reply later.

So the next time you are tempted to counsel someone about their career—or wipe their nose—ask yourself: what is a powerful offer I could make right now, and do I think they will be open to it?

Stop Agreeing To Unclear Requests [New Post]

Unclear requests wreak havoc in organizations, families, friendships, and civic life.

This is particularly true when the one receiving the request blindly says “yes.”

What is an unclear request? It’s when you ask me to do something but are vague about what you want.

Scenario A: Omission of the “What.”

Imagine that you are the design manager for a team creating a new product for the home refrigerator. When attached to the fridge, it senses when the door isn’t closed all the way and emits a sound. When Henry Homeowner hears this sound, he knows to go back and find out what’s blocking the door.

I’m your lead designer, and we have a preliminary conversation about the product and what it will do. You close by saying to me, “Give me something by Thursday at 5pm.”

I think to myself, Hmm, I don’t really know what “something” means, but that’s what they pay me to do, and I don’t want to look stupid by asking a question. So I say, “You got it, boss.”

I work hard on this for three days, and on Thursday afternoon give you what you asked for. Ten minutes later, the phone rings. “That is not what I asked for” you say with audible frustration. I feel dejected and angry. What a waste of time!

Scenario B: Omission of the “When.” 

Same product, people, and situation. But this time, you say, “Give me a 3D prototype with basic specs next week.”

When I hear this, I understand what will satisfy you and know that it’s urgent. So I shift my schedule around to allow me to get you the prototype by next Friday at noon, five hours before your deadline.

On Wednesday morning, you knock on my door. “Where’s the prototype?” you ask.

My throat tightens, and pressure mounts in my forehead. In a low apologetic voice, I reply, “I’m working on it.”

The frown on your face tells me that this isn’t the answer you were looking for. “I told you I needed it this week. We’re already halfway through the week.”

Oops.

Scenario C: Omission of the “What” and the “When.” 

Same product, people, and situation. This time, you say, “Give me something ASAP.”

Although I don’t know what will satisfy you or when you want it, I agree to the request.

What happens next: as the saying goes, I get my just dessert.

Who messed up? 

When it’s time for the team’s annual Broken Trust Awards, which one of us gets to walk away with a medal?

The answer, of course, is both. You receive the Fuzzy Duddy Award for making the unclear request. I get the Dummy Award for accepting it.

What can I do differently?

The obvious answer is to resent you for being so unclear. You’re the manager. You’re supposed to know what you’re talking about. Stop jerking me around!

Or, I can own up to my part of the situation. The next time you make an unclear request, I choose to do one of the following:

  • Ask for clarification. “I get what you’re looking for and want to make sure I understand when exactly you want it. You said ‘next week.’ When during the week did you have in mind?”
  • Propose something more specific. “OK, so you want something by Thursday at 5pm. I want to make sure that we are on the same page in terms of what you want. If I gave you a table of features and benefits, will this work for you, or did you have something else in mind?”
  • Promise to propose something more specific. “I’ve got the timeframe and understand that it may not be clear exactly what you’re looking for. What I’d like to do is take two hours and come back to you with a proposal for what I’ll have for you by Thursday at 5pm. Will this work for you?”