Improve Your Communication – Send Fewer Emails!

Kevin P. Dincher

Communicating effectively is a major workplace challenge, and technology has made it possible to communicate quickly with anyone anywhere any time. But “communicating quickly 24/7” is not the same as “communicating effectively”—and so every once in a while, I tell my clients that email is insidious and possibly downright evil. I don’t really think so—but it gets their attention.

The Volume Problem

The immense volume of email that many of us receive each day can make email seem like an unbeatable adversary in a battle between responding to messages and getting the work done that we had planned. Our days easily feel more reactive than productive. One friend’s day is so dominated by email that her FaceBook posts are regular updates on progress in cleaning out her inbox. Only very rarely does she get to post “Inbox Zero!” It is always a bit impressive, therefore, when people come up with a system for dealing with email overload that actually works for them. For instance, both Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner have developed their own systems for handling email and staying productive rather than email being a constant, nagging drag on his day. Their systems won’t work for everyone, but they are good examples of taking a systematic approach to email—and not making “Inbox Zero” your goal.

It’s Not Just a Problem of Volume

Not all problems with email communication are volume related. Because email is so pervasive and so immediate, it seems like we should use it for everything. There are, however, things that we shouldn’t do by email.

Keep it Short and Simple

Email is at its best when sharing simple, specific information. If you have a quick question or are providing a short update on a project, email is the way to go. Email is perfect for sending out a brief request, simple instructions or a clear to do list. It is also a great way to get information to multiple people that they need to read, process and refer back to (for example, agenda topics for an upcoming meeting). When the message is simple, straightforward information that doesn’t require much (if any) discussion, explanation or deliberation, then email is the way to go.

As the communication becomes more complex, however, consider picking up the phone or scheduling some face-to-face time rather than defaulting to email.

  • Don’t use email for complicated instructions that are likely to generate questions or require further explanation.
  • Avoid long, complex emails. When the message is lengthy, difficult and complicated, email can make a mess of it. If you find yourself taking a long time to write and edit an email, then you probably shouldn’t be using email.
  • People are less likely to read a message that is more than a brief paragraph or two. Just think how often you’ve received a long email and said, “I’ll read that one later,” and later never comes.
  • Don’t use email for solving complex problems or problem solving that involves multiple people. You are more likely to produce a jumble of increasingly confusing email threads than workable solutions.

When Time is Critical, Pick up the Phone

When time is critical, pick up the phone to get the information or the action you need when you need it. Even though electronic media moves a message from Point A to Point B in an instant, it doesn’t guarantee that a message gets from Person A to Person B in an instant.

We have all experienced the frustration of sending an email asking for information that we need now—and waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Be realistic:  even in today’s always-connected world, I may not get your message in time to be helpful to you. Additionally, writing styles don’t always convey the same sense of urgency; I may not pick up that your need is any more critical than that of the other 50 emails I received in the last 10 minutes. The best way to deal with urgency is by phone or face-to-face.

Strong Emotions or Sensitive Information? Stay Away from the SEND Button!

Don’t use email when you need to communicate bad news, complaints, criticism or negative feedback—or anything that is sensitive or controversial. Misunderstandings and hurt feelings result more easily without the benefit of paralanguage—facial expressions, intonation and body language—and strong emotions are more likely to escalate.

Additionally, always remember that the FORWARD button is very easy to use—and incredibly tempting when people are upset or when the information is just too good (or too bad) not to share. Don’t use email when information is extremely sensitive, when the message is confidential or if you do not want to have a permanent record of the message. Once you send an email, you can never get it back, and you lose all control of what happens to it. You simply have no way of knowing where an email message will end up. A good rule of thumb:  never put anything in an email that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper!

Kevin Dincher is an organization development consultant, professional development coach and educator with 30 years of experience that includes not only OD consulting but also work in adult education,  counseling psychology and crisis management, program and operations management, and human resources.

LinkedIn: Kevin Dincher

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Good Managers Remove Obstacles – But How?

Kevin Dincher

After two conversations with team leaders this week about frustrations they are experiencing at work, I have been wondering how aware CEOs, executives and managers are of all the work-arounds their people and teams do to achieve success. You know what I mean by work-arounds:  those creative efforts to work around obstacles like bottlenecks, outdated rules, inefficient procedures, broken processes, and that co-worker who just can’t deliver.

Because work-arounds generally get the job done, we probably don’t give them enough thought. There are, however, good reasons for identifying work-arounds—and eliminating the need for them.

  • Work-arounds mask problem. Work-arounds are necessary because something isn’t right. Insufficient resources? Inefficient or broken processes? An outdated rule or policy? A co-worker who isn’t up to the demands of the job? There may be any combinations of problems. But because work-arounds get the job done, the problems stay hidden and can’t be fixed. Success rarely drives us to ask, “What went wrong?”
  • Work-arounds have hidden costs. If they are busy creating and managing work-arounds, your people cannot perform at their best. They are using up their resources—time, energy, creativity and budget—trying to bypass obstacles, and their productivity suffers.
  • Work-arounds negatively affect employee satisfaction.  Successfully working around the occasional snag can be a morale booster, but creating and managing work-arounds as an ongoing part of your work is like hauling rocks up a hill. It is frustrating, exhausting, and no one likes it. People can become unhappy and negative, and the impact of employee dissatisfaction is far-reaching, ranging from high turnover and low productivity to loss in revenue and poor customer service.

The Most Important Things Managers Do

The most important thing that any manager does is decide who winds up on the payroll and who doesn’t—that is, ensure that the right people are in the right jobs. The next most important thing a manager does is eliminate obstacles so that people can actually do their jobs to the very best of their abilities. If you don’t support your team members by removing the things that prevent them from delivering, you are setting them up for inefficient and unpredictable results.

Eliminating the Need for Work-Arounds

 1.       Set an Example.

 Start with yourself. The power of setting an example should never be underestimated. What you say is always critical—but what you do speaks louder. Identify your own work-arounds and the obstacles that make those work-arounds necessary. Make changes and improvements so that your work-arounds are no longer needed. You example can build an environment in which seeking improvement is valued and expected—and making things better can become standard operating procedure.

 2.       Listen Carefully.

 Listen to what your people are saying about “the system”—about your company’s rules, procedures, methods, customs, policies and the like. The way your people talk about “the system” will tell you where they experience roadblocks if you listen. Take what the people who do the work say seriously. 

 3.        Ask Questions.

Develop the habit of asking questions when you hear your team talking about “the system” in ways that make you suspect they are experiencing obstacles. Get them to clarify for you the need for work-arounds. Asking for this clarification reinforces the environment in which seeking improvement is valued and expected—and lets people know that you are actually listening.

Also develop the habit of asking what-went-wrong questions—questions about snags, challenges and difficulties—even when the work was completed successfully. Don’t assume there weren’t obstacles just because the outcome met your expectations. The outcome may have only been successful because of a number of work-arounds. Furthermore, by asking what-went-wrong kinds of questions, you do more than uncover obstacles; you acknowledge that the person or team overcame challenges. People like that kind of acknowledgement.

 4.       Do Something. 

 You do need to be prepared to do something about the obstacles you uncover. If you aren’t, then don’t bother with 1, 2 and 3 above. You will only frustrate your people further and show them that you aren’t actually interested in making things better. Remember:  what you say is critical, but what you do speaks louder.

Whenever possible, you should use the resources at your disposal to make the obstacle simply go away. No fuss. No bother. Obstacles do, however, come in a variety of complexities, and sometimes removing obstacles requires real organizational change. In those cases, involve the people who do the work. When it comes to change buy-in by the people affected is good, but ownership is better. Additionally, if you have done your job well—and hired the right people for the right job—no one knows how to do the work better than the people you hired to do the work. Use their knowledge and expertise.  You might just avoid creating new obstacles for them. Of course, if the obstacle really is a co-worker who isn’t the right person for the job, that’s a problem that falls back to you to solve.         

 5.       Celebrate Improvements Wins

 I hope that celebrating wins is already a part of your corporate culture. However, in the non-stop pace of business, it is easy to focus on what is coming up next and forget to acknowledge and celebrate what has been achieved. If you ignore your team’s wins, you miss a critical opportunity to inspire them to even greater successes. You also miss an opportunity to strengthen your own personal leadership brand—but that’s a subject for another time.

So, which of your own work-arounds are you going to tackle first?

Kevin Dincher is an organization development consultant, professional development coach and educator with 30 years of experience that includes not only OD consulting but also work in adult education,  counseling psychology and crisis management, program and operations management, and human resources.

LinkedIn: Kevin Dincher

Posted in Change Management, Leadership, Management, Organization Development (OD). Tags: , , . Comments Off on Good Managers Remove Obstacles – But How?

Be a Leader that People Want to Follow – Invest in Talk!

Kevin P. Dincher

People say that talk is cheap, but it’s not.  Businesses spend a great deal on talk:  on communication systems so that employees can talk with one another, on meetings and strategy planning sessions, on getting customers to talk with them, on telling their stories at trade shows, and much more.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh invests heavily in talk.  The company’s renovation of Las Vegas’ old City Hall for its new offices includes the cost of making the building deliberately inconvenient—by creating collisions points that encourage people to connect with one another and talk.  For example, many of the original 19 entrances to the building will be closed off so that arriving and departing employees collide with one another through a central plaza, and restrooms will be located in the center of the building so that people from different departments collide with one another.  The design makes it more likely that people will connect with one another rather than being isolated and never seeing each other.   Hsieh says he envisions a culture where people talk and build relationships;   he believes that the best ideas and productivity occur serendipitously when employees engage in constant casual contact and conversation.  “We don’t really telecommute at Zappos,” says Hsieh.

We Don’t Really Telecommute?

That is a radical idea in today’s business environment—and it challenges the studies that say working from home makes some workers more productive.  It is also an idea that can get you a great deal of negative press.  Ask Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer.  The reaction to the memo ending telecommuting at Yahoo! was immediate and virulent.

Hsieh and Mayer, however, are two CEOs with roughly the same idea:  bringing people together creates a different creative energy that they both want to tap into.  But while Hsieh has been called an innovator, Mayer has been chastised for disrespecting her employees, blaming them for Yahoo!’s problems, and failing to support working parents.  Why the difference?  There are certainly many possible reasons—but one may be the differing levels of investment in talk.

Leading by Memo?

Hsieh has a pretty clear picture of what he wants Zappos to become—a community of workers that is integrated into the larger societal community—and  because he never tires of talking about this vision, everyone knows what he is about and where Zappos is going.  Therefore, when people hear “we don’t really telecommute” they aren’t particularly surprised.  It fits.  It may or may not be a good idea,  but people know that it fits.

As for Mayer, while Hsieh is constantly talking about a vision and how Zappos is going to get there, she wrote a memo.   Actually she didn’t write the memo.  HR did.  Mayer didn’t even tell people about this monumental change herself.  Whether eliminating telecommuting at Yahoo! is a good change or not, she didn’t invest in enough talking.   She needed to talk more about her vision for Yahoo! and how Yahoo! was going to get there.  Then whether they thought it was a good idea or not, they would know that eliminating telecommuting fit.

Actually, Mayer’s need for investing in talk is greater than Hsieh’s.   Zappos is a small (1500+ employees), growing and vibrant company whose culture already bears Hsieh’s stamp.  Yahoo! is a large (14,000 employees) company which is considered stodgy and lethargic in comparison to its competitors—and Mayer is trying to create a corporate culture that supports her vision and her strategy to rebuild the company. Anyone who tries to convince you that re-engineering a company’s culture is anything but difficult is doing you a disservice.   Mayer’s job is much harder than Hsieh’s—so she should be talking much more about her vision.

But the question is:  what is Mayer’s vision?  In her first six months as CEO Mayer made big changes—and not just by ending telecommuting.   As Dan Farber wrote for a recent CNET blog:

Six months into the job, Mayer has sprung for free food worldwide, ditched the BlackBerry, instituted weekly company update meetings, recruited ex-Googlers, revamped sales, launched flagship products including Yahoo Mail and Flickr, and signed deals with top content providers, such as NBC Sports and Wenner Media.

But Mayer’s most important job is to articulate a vision of what Yahoo can be beyond what she has described as giving “end users something valuable and delightful that makes them want to come to Yahoo every day.” That mission statement is not different from that offered by her many CEO predecessors at Yahoo.

Invest in Talk

A clear vision helps everyone understand why you are asking them to do something.   When people see for themselves what you’re trying to achieve, then the directives they are given tend to make more sense.  People may still not like those directives, but at least the directives make sense.  But in order for that to happen, you need to talk—and talk often.   Talk about the vision every chance you get.

Of course, it is also important to “walk the talk.”  Talk may not be cheap, but actions do speak louder than words.  What you do is more important and believable than what you say.  Lead by example, not by memo.

Let’s talk, Ms. Mayer.  It won’t be cheap—but it will be worth the investment.

Kevin Dincher is an organization development consultant, professional development coach and educator with 30 years of experience that includes not only OD consulting but also work in adult education,  counseling psychology and crisis management, program and operations management, and human resources.

LinkedIn: Kevin Dincher

A Rush to Change = A Recipe for Failure

Kevin P. Dincher

It was 1996 when John Kotter first published Leading Change and told us that 70% of all major change efforts by businesses fail. Nearly two decades later there is little evidence that any improvement has occurred, and this 70% failure rate has become axiomatic in business development and change management circles. Despite some individual successes, change remains difficult—and few companies manage change successfully.

A Rush to Change

According to Kotter, there is a common factor behind the vast majority of failures:  businesses do not have the holistic approach to managing change that is needed to see the change through to success. One 2010 study shows that 29% of change initiatives are launched without any formal structure at all. “… [I]n a rush to change their organizations, managers end up immersing themselves in an alphabet soup of initiatives. They lose focus and become mesmerized by all the advice available in print and online about why companies should change, what they should try to accomplish, and how they should do it. This proliferation of recommendations often leads to muddle when change is attempted” (Cracking the Code of Change).

Consultants unfortunately can add to the problem. Too often we encourage you to rush headlong into action by trying to sell our solutions—tools for team building, communication skills training or leadership development programs—rather than selling you our expertise for working with you to identify your company’s particular need for change. In an earlier blog, I described the Organization Development process of INSIGHT-ACTION-RESULTS.  It is easy to skip over insight (the stage of assessment, analysis and diagnosis) to action by proposing solutions without having worked with you to gather information about your organization and without having identified the specific strengths and weaknesses of your organization.  In the hope of standing out among all those who are clamoring for your attention, consultants may run the risk of not helping you develop your business case for the change.Cycle

Connect Change to Business Strategy

Change should only be pursued in the context of a clear goal. Making changes without knowing why your company needs that change or how it will benefit from that change—that is, without having a clear business case for change that everyone understands—is a waste of your time and resources. Moreover, changing just to be part of the latest fad is counterproductive; doing so lowers morale and increases cynicism. Change for change’s sake is a recipe for failure.

Everyone involved must understand the business case for whatever change you are considering. Otherwise, your people will only focus on what they have to lose rather than on what they have to gain. They might comply with the change initially, but they will soon revert to the old way of doing things.

Don’t Skip Ahead of Insight

Organization change is a strategic imperative in today’s fast-paced business environment. Unfortunately in the pursuit of change and trying to be the best, managers frequently chase after the latest and greatest idea. In their haste, they forget the fundamental and sound principles that are prerequisites for successful change to occur.

  • Assessment and Analysis:  Successful change is always data driven and requires that we take the time to gather information and analyze data.
  • Diagnosis:  Successful change is built on your organization’s strengths and addresses your organization’s needs and weaknesses—not some other company’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Business Case:  Successful change requires that you have a clear strategic vision for the change that provides purpose and direction to the change.

Although managing change is difficult, implementing these few tried and true principles can help you improve your organization’s success.

Kevin Dincher is an organization development consultant, professional development coach and educator with 30 years of experience that includes not only OD consulting but also work in adult education,  counseling psychology and crisis management, program and operations management, and human resources.

LinkedIn: Kevin Dincher

Posted in Change Management, Organization Development (OD). Tags: , , . Comments Off on A Rush to Change = A Recipe for Failure
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