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Author: Carl Miller

Lessons Learned – Mistakes Repeated Vol.6 Three Simple Tests to Determine if Behavior is Ethical

Fotolia 58149783 XS2Business ethics

Every Project closure needs a time for lessons learned. Alas I am not the only one who sees the same mistakes repeated far too often.

In this issue I will continue our discussion about ethics. I submit we do not need a Code of Business Ethics to tell us what is right or wrong nor do we need the philosophical musing of Aristotle, Plato or Kant on what constitutes ethical behavior. Ethics by its nature is about the grey area in between right and wrong. It is about choices, neither of which is perfect.

I would propose three very basic rules to determine if an action is ethical.

The red face test – what would others think?
The sleepless nights test– what do I think?
The cover up test – do I need to cover it up since everyone knows the behavior is wrong?

I will illustrate with 3 stories, the names have been omitted to protect the guilty in the hopes they will see the light.

The red face test

If your mother saw what you were doing or if it appeared on the front page of the newspaper would you be embarrassed? If the answer is yes – don’t do it or if you have done it un-do it.

The newspaper will not be running your version of events nor your rationalization as to why you had to do it! You may well complain that the story is sensationalized, as newspapers are prone to do. And the facts, well certainly not the way you would phrase them. And what does your mother think? She loves you dearly, but will no doubt shake her head and say “just wait till your Dad gets home”.

I once heard a novice project manager rationalize why he had fired consultant ‘x’ and retained the much less qualified consultant ‘y’. He said that consultant ‘y’ had a relationship with consultant ‘z’ who had links to the end customer, hence consultant ‘x’ was chosen for the chopping block. Yes, politics is alive and well in many projects. But that does not mean it is ethical to act on political motivations, nor is the rationalization that “I had to do it because of the politics” is at all compelling.

Less than a month later, with the shifting political winds, the unqualified consultant ‘y’ was fired for being ‘unable to contribute’ . Now the Corporation had neither consultant. It was left with damaged relationships, inferior project output and an extremely red face.

The sleepless night test

One of the most ethical PM/consultants I know and now a CEO told me the story of when he was just starting out. He was a sub-contractor/consultant to a contractor who had landed an engagement with a large telecommunications organization. One day the contractor confided that he had actually won the contract by giving a bribe to an individual in the telecommunications organization. Our ethical consultant was shocked and at a loss as to what to do.

The angel on his shoulder told him it was wrong and dishonest, the devil on the other shoulder said –‘well you didn’t offer the bribe, it’s not your problem’.
The angel replied ‘it is wrong and dishonest’.
The devil countered ‘you are a sub-contractor and owe your allegiance to the contractor not the telecommunications company and beside if you broke the contractor’s confidence you would hurt him, lose your job and never be trusted by the contractor again’.
The angel replied ‘it is wrong and dishonest and you know it, if you do nothing you condone and participate in it’.

The back and forth continued without a ‘rational’ answer to the problem. –Just walk away? Hold your nose and say nothing?

But in the end it was the sleepless nights the ethical PM/contractor endured rather than any rational thought process that told him he was complicit in the cover up and he realized what the right thing to do was.

With much trepidation he approached an individual in the telecommunication organization without knowing whether he was approaching the person who accepted the bribe (it wasn’t). Of course there was hell to pay and a major uproar in the telecommunications company. While all the uproar played out, the ethical PM/consultant slept peacefully.

The telecommunications company recognized ethical behavior, thanked our ethical PM/consultant and initiated what would become a long-term relationship with him.

The cover up test

When behavior is laid bare and what others think, what you think, and the naked truth for all to see, is the same unethical behavior, there is no place to hide.

What to do then? Only a cover up will hide the naked truth.

As Richard Nixon learned, the cover up is worse than the crime. The cover up usually begins with the generation of a narrative. What went wrong? – create a narrative and stick to it, after all it’s just an interpretation and we can find a rationale that will protect our ass (said the devil sitting on one shoulder).

If you need a cover up narrative you know the behavior is wrong and you are better to be honest, communicate fully and clean up the mess quickly.

Some time ago a long time consultant who had been a key player in a mission critical project for several years attended an important project management event.

It was clear from the outset that others were presenting sub-optimal material which was in marked contrast to decisions taken at previous PM meetings. The consultant was taken aside and asked by the Project Lead and Project Manager to re-write the material being presented.

At the end of the week the consultant voiced his opinion, perhaps a bit too forcefully, of the sub-optimal material as he believed that was what he was being paid for – to give his advice even when it was unpopular to do so. Others including the Project Lead were silent, but several voiced their concurrence with the consultant’s evaluation in the parking lot outside (a much safer place to voice concerns). Alas, those presenting were unable to accept the criticism. A nasty political situation emerged.

The Project Lead, faced with an expensive sub-optimal project management event needed a cover up and quickly. Now cow towing to the political winds, the declining budgets and waning executive support for the project, they took an expedient path and fired the consultant they had two days before asked to re-write the material because of the shortcomings of others.

Why would someone do this? Because it works (said the devil) – easier to find a scapegoat and deny the poor performance despite it being evident to all that attended A narrative was created with some absurd accusations in it.

Adding to the unethical behavior was the corporate decision not to pay the consultant when budgets were tight despite a contractual obligation to do so. “Why not interpret the contract this way and cover up your mistakes” said the devil.

Unfortunately when an unethical corporate culture exists it permeates and colours decision making.

The ‘business decision’ is to do nothing – the consultant probably won’t sue and we won’t have to pay. If he does we’ll deal with it then. The Corporation lawyer told the consultant’s lawyer – “We have more lawyers than you do”, true enough but it sounded a bit like an unethical threat and only inflamed the situation.

Usually this is the end of it – not right, not ethical but you can’t fight City Hall.

At times like these, caught in the cross fire, one has a choice – shrug and walk away or engage in the Don Quixote fight. That is, take on the corporation and say the “king has no clothes!” No one wins these fights, but to do nothing is to condone the behavior. It is ethical and difficult to engage in such a fight. It is easy and unethical to do nothing.

The sleepless night test works both ways. The consultant decided to engage in the Don Quixote fight. His sleepless nights (and the angel on his shoulder) told him that to do nothing was to become complicit and condone the unethical behavior. Not only was he appalled at the way his long and loyal service had been dismissed in favour of political expediency, but the unethical corporate narrative that followed was just too much to swallow.

When the legal process unearthed the facts and shone a spotlight on the situation the Corporation stood bare assed for all to see.

In the end the corporation was forced to settle the lawsuit, ending up having to pay what was owed and expended much effort and resources in the process; to say nothing of the loss of corporate image.

Would it not have been much more efficient and ethical for everyone concerned to engage in honest communication up front?

Sometimes, as Richard Nixon demonstrated, power is intoxicating and the cover-up worse than the crime. Oh, to have Watergate tapes on this one – would the discussion be around fortifying the castle walls against Don Quixote attacks? How to be more careful about who you pick a fight with? Who to fire for this mess? I doubt it was a sober discussion around building corporate ethical values.

Sometimes Don Quixote does win, except it is a win in terms of principles and values only. In practical terms everyone loses – a valuable and dedicated resource was lost and a sub-optimal product was produced. The Corporation ended up bare assed for all to see, while the consultant lost his job, endured needless stress but in the end was able to sleep peacefully at night.

The moral of the story…

We need only 3 simple tests and the angel on our shoulder to determine ethical behavior. In the long run the ethical approach will prevail if not always in the short run.

Saddest of all are those who ignore the red face test hoping it will not make tomorrow’s edition of the paper; who through practice, mange to sleep through the night hoping the ‘cover your ass’ strategy will work for them. When the cover-up is unearthed and the behavior is there for all to see, then the moment of truth arrives.

The Corporation and the PM must look in the mirror and say how ethical am I? The answer is obvious (said the angel).

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Lessons Learned – Mistakes Repeated Vol.5 Ethical Behavior – Principles and Practice

We don’t need Aristotle or a Code of Business Ethics – we need only 3 simple tests.

Business ethics

Every Project closure needs a time for lessons learned. Alas I am not the only one who sees the same mistakes repeated far too often. One I see repeated is not so much an isolated mistake as it is a corporate culture issue – ethics.

In this issue I will talk about the principles around ethics and in the next issue, the practical implications and 3 simple tests to determine what is ethical and what is not.

Although helpful at times, we do not need a Code of Business Ethics to tell us what is right or wrong. Nor do we need the philosophical musings of Aristotle, Plato or Kant on what constitutes ethical behavior. Ethics by its nature is about the grey area in between right and wrong. It is about choices, neither of which is perfect.

Let’s explore the dilemma of ethical decision-making.

  • Behave ethically
  • Appear to behave ethically
  • Encourage ethical behavior in others

In business, it is important to not only behave ethically but to have the appearance of ethical behavior. Many actions may appear unethical but still fall within the bounds of ethical behavior. I remember a Manager who upon detailed economic analysis discovered it was cheaper to fly his group to the Bahamas for a regional meeting then to hold it in a traditional conference center. His boss was not amused – perception is everything.

But more importantly it is the act of encouraging the ethical behavior of others and creating a corporate culture that supports ethical behavior that prevents ethical mistakes from occurring in the first place.

Corporations develop through their actions, a corporate culture that supports or does not support ethical behavior to greater or lesser extent. If one looks at the PM as the CEO of their project team they too must not only practice ethical behavior but also encourage and develop it in their teams. To do otherwise is to fail to lead.

The dilemma

Ethics is about dilemmas. Only a psychopath cannot tell right from wrong. But some ethical decisions are grey – principles we hold near and dear sometimes collide.

e allow freedom of speech in the workplace but we do not allow hurtful remarks. We know it is our responsibility to give feedback on performance but sometimes mask it in tactful remarks or other positive feedback to lessen hurt feelings but in so doing the impact is lost. We fear there may be hurtful repercussions so are less honest and forth right. Are we not cheating the project and the employee when we do this? I tell the teams I lead that the best ‘gift’ you can give your fellow team mates is open, honest feedback.

It is necessary to provide honest feedback as a demand of an ethical consultant and Project Manager. Many ethical decisions are difficult judgment calls. No one wants to hurt someone by giving him or her critical feedback but isn’t it really a gift they need to grow?

I recently had a project manager tell me she conducted a necessary mid year performance review that pointed out an employee’s need for improvement. Customer feedback was provided and suggestions for performance improvement given. Two days later the employee resigned, leaving the project manager thinking perhaps she was responsible for the resignation and the subsequent disruption of to the project. The judgment was in my opinion correct but difficult.

As Project Managers we are often faced with this dilemma. Not wanting to demoralize the individual but feeling it is necessary for the integrity of the Project to make changes.

To remain silent is to engage in unethical behavior.

Why? Because you are hired as a Project Manager to deliver on time, on budget and with the required scope and in the case of the consultant you are hired to give independent advice, even when it is unpopular to do so.

Hence if you knowingly fail to deliver on your primary obligation (your promise) to your employer because you fear conflict, hurt feelings, reprisals (real or imagined) then you cheat your employer.

That is unethical.

To remain silent is sets up a group norm

Those ‘rules of behaviour’, which are never overtly articulated but when, observed become the norm for group behavior. This is the way corporate cultures are developed over time. How would you like your group to behave? Should one remain silent when they disagree with a decision or should they engage in constructive collaborative conflict management to get the optimum solution?

In the Corporate world is it all right to cut the corners on quality to deliver on time? If no one sees it, is it OK? Corporations who lower the boom on project managers for late delivery irrespective of circumstances encourage the unethical short cuts, which harm the end customer.

Encouraging ethical decision making in others.

In the good old days we would say we have to ‘walk the talk’. Demonstrate through our own actions, ethical behavior, as we would wish our team to behave.
Today, I believe it is more about being authentic. PMs and Corporations that are comfortable in their own skin, appear real and hence believable; encourage others not just to follow rules but also to assimilate values. They are quick to realize mistakes and own up to them and correct them.

Others engage, sometimes unwittingly, in unethical actions and alas condone and contribute to the unethical corporate culture that encourages a power and control mentality.

What to do when those unpleasant consequences materialize? Even if a team member or consultant did screw up, why fire them just because you can? Why leave a dysfunctional organization to fend for themselves just because it appears easier to leave them to their own devices.

If a long-term employee screwed up would you fire them or would you practice the management skills we preach –develop employees through feedback and coaching. The convenient scapegoat covers the ass but does not solve the problem. I would argue that working with a corporation or consultant who screwed up, honestly owned up and corrected the problem rather than trying to break in a new horse is often the best business decision. Of course it requires honesty, maturity, communication and admitting that perhaps all of us share in the failure.

Unfortunately it becomes difficult to say ‘I made a mistake, I shouldn’t have done that’. Occasionally we see contractors/SMEs owning up to a poor job and Corporations owning up to mistakes made, however I see more of the Watergate cover up than an owning up.

So why is it so difficult to own up to and correct mistakes?

Because often there is a lack of trust and sincere honesty in interactions and, I believe personal insecurity. If we fear we will be attacked, fired or sued, a cover up begins. It is interesting to note that when Richard Nixon fired his two top aides, Bob Haldeman and John Erlichman, he didn’t do it himself – he had his press secretary do it. Such cowardice and lack of integrity in human interactions is unforgivable. Certainly it is not a demonstration of authenticity in the workplace, is it? Why did he send others to do the dirty work and abdicate his own responsibility? Because it was difficult to do and he knew what he was doing was wrong. Such actions clearly demonstrate the corporate culture that was in place in the White House at the time.

Few would argue that over the long term, ethical and responsible employers, PMs and consultants will benefit from honest and ethical decisions although it may be painful in the short term. Conciously building that ethical corporate culture requires us to move beyond ‘walking the talk’ to reversing our silence and doing the courageous ethical action. It is difficult but necessary to do your job and give their best advice even if it is unpopular to do so. To do otherwise is to steal from the company who hired you

‘The King has no clothes!’ Is a very underused phrase!

I suggest a re-read of my previous Lessons Learned-Mistakes Repeated

  • Retain institutional knowledge in an outsourced world by maintaining long term ethical relationships between consultants and corporations;
  • Engage in communication – without it you have nothing. Most ethical issues need not escalate with some principled behavior and honest communication by the participants.
  • Recognize the difference between positions and interests.
  • Ensure ethical conduct is a key corporate value – Based on authentic behavior and clear communication to enable values being assimilated.

I would propose three very basic rules to determine if a behavior is ethical:

The red face test – how would you feel if it appeared on the front page of the newspaper?

The sleepless nights test– what do I think of the behavior?

The protect your ass gone wrong test – everyone knows the behavior is wrong and the guilty are found bare assed for all to see.

In the next edition I will illustrate with 3 true stories, the application of ethical behavior, with the names, omitted to protect the guilty in the hopes they will see the light.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Lessons Learned – Mistakes Repeated Vol. 4 What Gamers Can Teach us about – Next Generation Training

Every Project closure needs a time for lessons learned. Alas I am not the only one who sees the same mistakes repeated far too often. One mistake repeated is the lack of attention to training. The heavy lifting of the project is done and the assumption made that a User manual or on line help capability will suffice to allow people to realize the benefits of the just completed project. A careful analysis reveals that users need to be able to perform activities on the job, which require knowledge of both specific project implementation and the more general industry trends. For example, some understanding and ability to use modeling techniques, principles of Business Architecture and Business Analysis etc.

Alas in many projects the training part is an after thought – always a placeholder in the project plan but not much behind the curtain. Yes, ultimately the User ‘figures it out’ and is able to use the new application but only with considerable effort, confusion and initial lost productivity before ‘getting up to speed’.

Today’s training companies aren’t helping much. They are beginning to look like sausage factories – churning out courses purporting to make us experts but really only providing some knowledge components readily available in the public domain. Only the order of the power point slides changes.

Why are we constantly surprised that the much sought after productivity improvement is not evident soon after implementation? 

In human resources capability development we lag far behind. Training lacks the proper prioritization and alas training techniques are not keeping pace with requirements. In a world where on-line courses and YouTube videos abound on subjects ranging from nutrition to Yoga to Business Analysis modeling, a re-think of how we develop human resources to do things, complete tasks and realize goals is needed. No doubt people need to know ‘stuff’ but it is as the mathematicians say a ‘necessary but not sufficient’ condition.

The video gaming industry can teach us a thing or two as I recently learned.

When I was first introduced to my daughter’s boyfriend who works in the gaming industry I was somewhat skeptical. When we met I was pleasantly surprised to see no tattoos nor piercings in strange places and instead an intelligent young man who makes more than I do. As part of the parental interview I asked about the gaming industry and found some lessons to be learned and applied to the virtual training world (as a matter of fact to the face to face training environment as well).

The gaming industry is focused on producing the animated games for Xboxes and PCs. Today the trend is to games for the iPhone as that is where the kids are going. Still violent war games for the most part they all center on preparing the user for the ‘ boss-fight ‘ I was to learn. That is, when you take on the likes of Darth Vader with the sword of the Force.

George explained to me that nobody wants to read through a list of instructions; they just want to start and ‘learn’ as they go. They don’t have the patience and will quickly turn their attention to something else if they are not able to quickly use the game.

Sound familiar?

In the PM world it seems to me those User Manuals fill up the book case and are used about as much as the Corporate world’s on-line FAQ which are offered instead of a real live person in India. We all tend to want to ‘get on with it ‘ and speak to a person despite the best efforts of corporations to thwart us from doing so. I think we need to consider in our fast changing world whether our User manuals and on line help facilities really represent poorly allocated project resources. Are they worth the time, money and energy expended to produce them? Can we learn from the gaming industry new ways to achieve productivity faster?

Start with a Challenge:

Gamers start with a challenge not an introduction. They then quickly move to adding skills intuitively. ‘Here’s a bow and arrow’; a target appears; try it a few times learning the skill of aiming. The pace quickens and as proficiency is gained new tools are introduced.

Incremental Learning:

Of course gamers are skilled at leading the participants through various levels of proficiency to prepare them for the ‘boss-fight’. They match the difficulty level with the users skill level so that they do not move on to higher levels until users have acquired the lower level skills.

Doing and Using:

In the project management world we would say training is about learning and knowledge acquisition, building the capability to apply it in the real world. The gaming industry is all about doing and using. We often tend in the training industry to equate knowledge with proficiency. Having a cognitive ability is not the same as having proficiency. One needs to do and to use, as is the case in the gaming industry.

Don’t get hurt:

Another principle in the gaming industry is teaching ‘when you do the wrong things you get hurt’. Randomly firing shots while failing to take cover results in the user being killed and having to start over. The negative reinforcement is a key-learning item forcing the user to learn how to protect himself while aggressively attacking his opponent.

I would suggest we learn from the gaming industry that to provide a safe environment to make mistakes is necessary to truly acquire the proficiency, which leads to productivity. Our project plans and training departments seldom provide enough of the ‘case study’ learning so necessary to true learning.

Get the juices flowing:

The gaming industry uses a fundamental psychological principle that ‘competition’ is an inherent essential component of stimulating the emotional involvement of the user. I learned a long time ago that no real learning takes place without the emotional involvement of the learner. There needs to be an emotional investment on the part of the learned before the ‘eureka’ moments happen. In my training courses I attempt to assign a work exercise at the end of the day. Students need to have it ready for presentation in the morning. I do this to create what is called ‘learning tension’, a sort of anxiousness which heightens student involvement. I often see students spend their evening prepping so as to impress or not be embarrassed in front of fellow students.

Where the gaming industry struggles is the move to the next level of user involvement – the emotional and personal interactions. That’s hard to replicate. One sees this with Star Trek’s ‘Data’ an android which houses voluminous data but is unable to experience human emotion.

Many of the courses I teach on conflict management and communication rely on the ability to read body language and tone of voice and interpret the human interaction. Several scholarly papers have been written on the subject, which are beyond the scope of our discussion here but come to the same conclusion.

Alas as Project Managers and trainers when we attempt to use virtual training environments to replicate real life scenarios which involve human interaction, we run into difficulties. PM’s implementing CRM applications, which attempt to aid front line users, need to think about this when deciding the type of resources to allocate to the training box on their project plans.

Our project plans tend to focus on acquiring knowledge and then leave to the user to do the rest. No wonder the sought after productivity gains do not materialize quickly.

So what are the lessons learned?

First some facts of life – knowledge is a commodity with You Tube and other social media providing facts and information. True it is unorganized and not validated, but come to think of it I’ve seen a lot of training courses unorganized and with mis-information. We need to move beyond the ‘knowledge component’ and as the gamers do:

  1. Involve the user early in doing
  2. Teach in incremental steps as the learner acquires skill and knowledge
  3. Provide a safe environment to practice and fail
  4. Apply to the real world (equivalent to the boss fight)
  5. Stimulate the emotions by providing challenges, competition, and feedback

Oh and one more thing.

While my daughter was visiting me at my winter home in Mexico, George spent his free time developing a new video game – this one was a story-telling narrative where the reader (my daughter) chose from a list of alternative words on each page, which would take the story down a different path. Ultimately all paths converged to the exciting conclusion.

“Will you marry me?”

Perhaps another lesson to be learned is that the shackles of corporate training templates need to be put aside to allow our creative side appear. Or perhaps gamers are just more romantic than Project Managers.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Lessons Learned – Mistakes Repeated Vol. 3 There is Too Much Compromise in Business

Often in the hectic world of Project Management the quick compromise fits the bill. It’s quick, efficient and gets the job done. But is it the best solution?

Every Project closure needs a time for lessons learned. Alas I am not the only one who sees the same mistakes repeated far too often.

One of the most oft repeated mistakes I see in negotiation and conflict management is the over use of compromise. It is almost accepted practice to split the difference and move on. People think the correct answer is half way between the two positions.

It is not.

If an agreement is made and the parties can smile afterwards some think this is a win-win.

It is not.

Compromise is really a competitive negotiation because it is based on positions not the underlying interests. 

Whether it is a Project Management timeline, Government shut down or Middle East peace negotiations, a collaborative process is essential to having a true win-win outcome. Quick and efficient is not the same as a solution that truly satisfies the needs and interests of both parties. Not damaging the relationship of the two parties in a negotiation is not the same as building trust and engaging in a collaborative negotiation methodology.

Let me be clear that compromise is sometimes the ‘right’ negotiation strategy. I would suggest when there is a need for a quick solution and the issue is not vitally important to either party a compromise may well solve the problem without damaging the relationship. But it is not the same as a win-win and it is not collaborative. That is, it is not true problem solving –its competitive negotiation. 

My experience as a member of a Middle East citizen diplomacy mission to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza taught me that when the issue is vitally important to both sides collaborative negotiation is the only way to resolve the conflict.

At the root of collaborative negotiation is the concept of the difference between positions and interests. What the parties say they need (position) as opposed to what the parties really want and why they want it (interests). 

Let me explain by a simple example of a bedtime conflict with my daughter Kristen, who upon reaching the lofty age of 10 demanded that her bedtime be 10 o’clock whilst I was firm that the bedtime should be 9:30. 

All of you parents will know the predictable path that the discussion took. “You need your sleep”; “I get up in the morning so I don’t need that much sleep”; “Mary’s bedtime is 10 o’clock” and on and on and on.

I was about to give in or compromise because I was tired of arguing when I got one of these ‘Father knows best ‘ moments. 

I said to Kristen “why is it so important that your bedtime be 10’oclock”? Kristen paused for a moment. You could see the wheels turning in her head. Probably thinking “what is Dad trying to do, I bet it’s a trick”. 

Finally she said, “There is a TV show on at 9:30 and the kids at school always talk about it a recess”. Immediately I knew that what Kristen really wanted was to be part of the group at school ant the bedtime change the solution to her problem.

Then as all future parents should know; no matter what you do for kids they one day turn on you! Kristen looked at me and said “And why is it so important to you”.

I thought about it for a minute – It was important to me as a single parent with two kids and full time job to have some quiet time at the end of the day to relax and unwind. 

So as my astute daughter so cleverly revealed the disagreement was not really about 9:30 – 10:00 o’clock where there is one winner and one loser.

We could assume that the likely outcome is the compromise of 9:45p.m. which leaves everyone a loser. But really when we look at the underlying interests we move from arguing about positions to solving a problem.

The problem is how do we let Kristen be a part of the group at school and at the same time give Dad his quiet time? This is a problem to be solved and not positions (9:30-10:00 o’clock) to be argued. If we look at it as a problem to be solved by both of us working together we will be much more successful. Effectively Kristen and I are on the same side of the table.

We didn’t solve the problem right away but I left that interaction with a far different view of the problem.

In mission critical projects can we afford a 9:45 solution? And why is it so hard to get a collaborative solution where both parties win? 

Number one, we don’t try –we often go for the quick and expedient rather than the best solution.

Some believe it takes too long for a collaborative solution. The Government shut down in the U.S. and the National baseball strike, suggest that on the contrary, a competitive negotiation takes far more time and takes a toll on the relationship between the parties. Often everyone ends up a loser and the relationship is harmed in the process. Trust is lost and communication is difficult.

Eventually Kristen and I worked out a collaborative solution to our problem. This was the deal – we would watch the TV show together and on the commercials Kristen would put on her pajamas, brush her teeth etc. That is the labour intensive part of putting a child to bed. So I was relieved of that tiring burden and the coaxing / nagging that goes with it. 

On the other hand Kristen got to watch the TV show, we both got cuddle time and our relationship was not harmed. In fact the relationship was enhanced through the honest communication and a norm for settling parent – child disputes put in place.

One could argue that I got more than I would have got if I had prevailed at a 9:30 bedtime as I would still have had to go through the tiring –“brush your teeth, get your pajamas on” process.

And likewise Kristen got more than she would have got had she pursued a competitive negotiation and a 10 o’clock bedtime – getting some cuddle time with dad, avoiding the go to bed angst, getting to watch her TV show and being able to be part of the gang at recess!

This is the win-win. 

p.s. I have a YouTube video recounting of the story above. 

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Lessons Learned – Mistakes Repeated Vol. 2 If You Don’t Have This… You Don’t Have Anything!

I’m writing – you are reading – WE are not communicating. Not yet anyways. Communication comes from the Latin, which means ‘to come to a common understanding’.

Re-Learning how to communicate in a fast moving race down the ever-lengthening TO-DO list or e-mail inbox greatly increases efficiency, avoids mistakes, decreases risk and avoids conflict. 

Every Project closure needs a time for lessons learned. Alas I am not the only one who sees the same mistakes repeated far too often. The way we communicate – that is come to that common understanding is the most efficient way to solve problems and keep them solved. Unfortunately, work-arounds and compromise seem to be the norm.

Tom misreads the tone of Frank’s ASAP e-mail, thinking the final system check isn’t time sensitive and ignores it. Frank, getting no response either thinks Tom, has no desire to resolve the issue or is just a jerk. In fact perhaps Frank’s e-mail or Tom has not shared pressures on him from security and higher management. In fact what is happening is the lack of a real understanding between Tom & Frank exacecerbates the situation with numerous rounds of e-mails and a potential souring of the relationship.

In order to reach this common understanding we need to get better at getting to the heart of what the other person is trying to convey. We need to understand where the speaker is coming from (context) and why it is important to the speaker (personal interests). 

A speaker’s attempt at communication is always masked in their own language phraseology, intended or unintended tone, root problem and why it is so important to them. It will be difficult or even impossible to fully understand the intent of the speaker without doing so. As Steven Covey said so long ago –‘seek first to understand then to be understood’. 

In the mediation business we talk of intent-action-impact. I intend a certain message; I translate it into a message or action but then it is received and has an impact on the receiver of the message. The impact is quite often different than intended.

Failure to look at the speaker’s intent, purpose, interests and actions, often results in more e-mails, questions, whys? And why nots? etc. further increasing the number of interactions and e-mails. This, in turn, results in a perceived need to speed through the e-mail inbox and dispense with them. 
Usually we fall back to the more expedient and less effective compromise.

Without real communication you have nothing. Whizz through the To Do list and inbox and then sit back and await their return. Reacting and interpreting the message from within your own context further inflames the situation. From there we make assumptions about the other person. This often results in the other guy becoming the bad guy. Once people get entrenched in preconceived notions (‘everything is about money with him’, ‘he’s calling me a liar’, ‘it didn’t happen that way at all’).

At that point everything out of the other person’s mouth is misinterpreted, cast in an unflattering or opinioned way and communication in the sense of coming to a common understanding becomes all the harder to achieve. And without the understanding there is no way out of conflict, growing compromises and second guessing. Just an ever faster treadmill race down the in-box To-Do list. 

What makes communication so hard to do? 

  1. We are all human and have learned ways of listening that have made us successful in the past.
  2. Often in today’s age of overloaded inboxes, the ability to speed through the list and getting things done quickly is one of the skills we learn.
  3. One of the things we lose in our quest to be quick is the loss of understanding and consequently efficiency.
  4. Another loss in our quest for speed is achieving truly innovative quality solutions.

Can we be more efficient and effective if we communicate better?

The best way to become a better communicator is to become a better listener. There is some good research on listening, which suggests some common barriers to listening. Listening from our own context –where we are at the moment affects how we hear a message. Hence when thoughts are on budgets and the speaker speaks of timeline we tend to interpret the speaker’s words and perhaps intents differently. 

Another barrier is anticipating what the speaker is going to say next, hence inserting our thoughts for the speaker’s. When we do this we are prematurely evaluating the speaker’s message before we have truly ‘understood’ what the speaker is intending. Our first instinct is the human reactive instinct to respond in some way instead of listening. 

Instead of truly listening we prepare our rebuttal or if we agree we try and ‘help’ the speaker complete their thoughts.

The purpose of Listening is to Listen, nothing more nothing less.

After we listen we need to ensure understanding of the speaker’s intent. In the Latin sense of the word it matters not whether the speaker didn’t speak clearly enough or whether we were not intently listening with the aim of truly understanding. It is a joint responsibility to come to a common understanding. 

So how can we communicate better? Practicing active and introspective listening can make all the difference. This can only be done by pausing, asking questions open, closed, examples, permission, and most importantly active listening. Active listening turns a passive activity like listening to an active one. 

  1. It begins with a paraphrase of what you heard.
  2. The critical question – ‘Did I get that right? ‘Did I understand that correctly?’
  3. The speaker then has an option – ‘Yes you did’ or ‘No you didn’t’
  4. If the answer is No, the speaker repeats trying to clarify the portion the listener missed from the speaker’s intent.
  5. The listener again paraphrases and repeats the key question – did I get that right?
  6. Only when the speaker is satisfied that the listener has understood correctly do the roles reverse.

I use active listening in my mediation work resolving conflict between parties. It is amazing to watch as participants to the conflict continue to repeat familiar arguments and attempts to insert rebuttals. 

Get real! – explaining it one more time as if it were a logic exercise is not effective. Understanding being empathetic and setting aside your own needs for a moment requires maturity, business acumen, detached objectivity and sometimes considerable skill. Understanding why it is so important

To become a better communicator become a better listener 

The purpose of listening is to listen –nothing more, nothing less

Properly executed Active listening brings understanding

When both parties share a common understanding then you have communication. That is communication and without it you have nothing.

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