Monday, September 5, 2011

Don't Shoot the Messenger

We have now seen how gathering data or Listening depends on gaining answers to carefully designed questions. Since questions are naturally threatening to people, they can cause defensiveness as well as anxiety. Just being in the presence of a boss increases our anxiety and the higher the boss the greater the anxiety (non-5Star only). Therefore, a major goal of any questioning process must be to relax fears and prevent anxiety.

In view of this, I have chosen to present to you the procedure a boss should use to receive a problem report, certainly a most challenging situation loaded with pitfalls. Since reporting problems is our most important management rule, the procedure must certainly not Shoot the Messenger, but must welcome the bad news as another opportunity to excel. Done correctly, messengers will not be terrified to make the report and some few may even feel glad to do so. The boss will have made problem reporting something for which no one has a valid Excuse not to perform. So here's the Procedure.

1. Train yourself to physically clap your hands for joy and smile warmly as soon as you realize that standing before you is a messenger of bad news. Add a few words of welcome to reduce anxiety. Clear your brain to concentrate on listening.

2. Then allow the reporter to continue without interruption while you smile warmly as if you have heard some of this before (you probably have). Perhaps you can start to take some careful notes. Note taking always keeps us occupied, keeps us from missing anything and permits us to slow down the reporter.

3. At the end of the person's report, ask very politely if that's all there is or if there is more. Send the clear message you are in no hurry and that quality in getting all the details is your only desire.

4. The reporter may be ready to discuss corrective action and if so, take it now before you start asking questions. You might desire to reverse this, but remember we are far more worried about the reporter's feelings than yours. So do whatever the reporter wants. When the reporter stops, ask if there are any more details worth knowing. Do not assume that the report is complete until there is a definite statement to that effect. Then worry that some details have been left out.

5. Now give thanks for the information and appreciation for the person's effort to tell you. Perhaps a reference to your reporting rule (Chapter 5, Supporting, What Can I Do For You, requires that all problems be reported up the chain) can be made and how important that is to your being able to do your own job. “Well, that's quite a load, George. Thanks a lot for bringing it. You know I've got this rule about reporting all problems, so I am really grateful that you did so. If you don't report the problems, I'll never be able to do my job. This is really important to me and I appreciate your report.”

6. Only now can you ask questions. At this point, you should have been able to gain composure and prepare yourself. You have had plenty of time to mentally note what's not been said, what's been implied that needs amplification, what the reporter's body language gave you that was missed in words and what was said but not clearly enough for you to understand. The reporter's body language should have sent relative importance, degree of hazard, whether there is more to the story and the like. You have also had time to compare this event with others in your experience so that you may now apply previous lessons learned.

7. So go back over the problem carefully with your questions, even to the extent of full repeats. Do not be accusatory or in any way place the reporter on the defensive. Remember, the person is on your team and vice versa so the questions must be professional, unemotional and matter of fact. You set the Tone. You might even explain this fact and that you want to ask some questions so you will fully understand the nature of the problem, and after all, making things worse by taking inappropriate actions is not your intent.

8. Beyond the problem itself, there are root causes which are the people problems of this book. Your questions must probe for these possibilities. Frequency of occurrence, similarity to other problems, association with particular groups or individuals, as well as the reporter's tone and body language can be great signposts. “I don't want you to criticize your peers (or boss), but what do you think, George, about how the problem got started? How can we do better?” Careful, circumspect probing that begs for possible answers is the rule.

9. Any need for fixing people problems will slowly become apparent as problem understanding and its solution are developed. People problems can only be understood after some detailed discussion. The wrong order, miscommunication, the wrong goal, the wrong training or tool or procedure are so pervasive that laying blame on a people problem is not possible until the very end of the process. Do not attempt it in the beginning as it will really shut down the problem report.

10. Ask if the reporter has any recommendations as to how we should proceed, if not already provided. Ask questions to get all the details and the reasoning. People who spend time using their brainpower to figure out actions must be recognized and praised.

11. So the careful, not aggressive but firm questioning is done. The quality of the report will dictate the number and variety of the questions. There may be just a few. A by-product will be an understanding of the reporter and perhaps some practical training for the reporter to the extent his/her own homework was not completely done. After the above process, rest assured his/her next report will be of higher quality and will require less questions on your part.

12. Now ask if there is anything else which might be important to know in designing what we do from here.

13. At the very end, thank and appreciate once again, and with a smile and a lilt to your voice, let the messenger go. "Thanks again for bringing up the problem. I know it is not easy for you, but it is very important to me. Thanks especially for bearing with my questions and being so open with your responses (whether true or not, because this makes the next time better).

I recommend blind adherence to the above and a solid attempt to have your body language exude the positive, bright and cheerful Tone intended. Every boss should welcome the tough problems with open arms because without them you would not be needed. Bosses can only truly earn their pay in times of great difficulty. If they get tough when the going gets tough rather than get unhappy or vengeful or rattled or reactive, what a great example, what great leadership!

Did I say leadership? Did the script above pass all of the Value Standards of chapter 4 with an 8-10? Check it for positive attitude and enthusiasm and smiles and cheerleading! Check it for humility, fairness, forthrightness and do unto others as you would have them do unto you! Do your own evaluation!

Please make one important observation. The boss gave no answers, opinions or conclusions, rather choosing to concentrate on getting every possible input which the reporter could provide. The boss paid close attention to the reporter and not on thoughts, conclusions and whatever inside his/her own head. Most bosses are so busy with their own thoughts and deciding what they will say that they miss half or more of the communications emanating from the reporter. This is interpreted as being egotism or selfishness and leads in the wrong direction, away from selflessness and fairness. From such, reporters learn they will not be heard.

If the boss consciously uses the above procedure for receiving any problem from anyone, whether initiated by the boss (“How are your tools?”) or not, it removes all pressure on the boss to somehow perform as the provider of all answers and all knowledge. It also allows the boss to concentrate on Listening, questioning and not missing anything. Besides, after you have completed pumping everything possible out of the reporter, time for thought on what to do will be available. Many other people may need to be involved and should have a chance to provide input before proceeding. Do not jump to conclusions or make quick decisions or pronouncements. You only have one report, one of many sides. Be careful to get all sides covered before you err by trying to manage something which needs more facts to reach a conclusion or should be decided at a lower level in the chain of command, etc. Many possibilities exist and most of them indicate that keeping your mouth shut is the best policy until careful thought is possible. Don't be a loose cannon.

Bear in mind that the previously covered Value of quality is a real key to the above. Taking a chance on providing guidance or direction or judgment which is of less than the highest quality, when there is no emergency or other condition which requires immediate response, is unnecessarily chancing poor leadership. Lack of quality always comes back to haunt us and using the wisdom of “anything worth doing is worth doing right” will pay you back many fold. Do not be pressured into being a hip-shooter. Deliberately stop and show respect for the gravity of the situation, for the needs of leadership in general, and most of all, for the people involved. Take the time to do it right. This is termed "attention to detail" for bosses.

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