The Other Side


I’m following on from last week with something else you can do to make your meetings better. I know they’re nearly perfect as it is, but let’s hope I can offer you a few extra suggestions from the other side that will make your life easier.

Badly Run Meeting

I was working with a client recently on how to run meetings with her various teams.

I asked her how she prepared for the meetings. She admitted that she didn’t always send out an agenda as soon as she should. This was the extent of her ‘preparation’.

As you can imagine, by the end of the meeting, she went away with quite a lot of homework. One of the key pieces was being much more explicit about what she told the various teams about what she expected from them by way of preparation.

This is an area we often forget about. But if we can make it clear to people exactly what we need them to do in advance, there is a much greater chance that they will do it.

Her meetings, which were clearly very important, seemed to have no clear objectives. She was disappointed with what people brought to the meetings (nothing in some cases) but had not told them what was required.

She said that many of the attendees had not read the material in advance and so, quite often, the decisions they were supposed to make didn’t happen, or took far longer than necessary.

The others in the meeting who had prepared were frustrated because their time was being wasted.

Does this sound familiar?

One idea she came up with was to ask people to submit a small slide pack (3 or 4 slides) with a summary of their key points, three days before the meeting.

She could then check these in advance and chase up those who had not prepared properly well before the meeting.

Extra Work

This sounds like extra work. And it is, initially. But how much work do you think it will save in the long run?

Setting The Tone

This kind of request and follow up can set the standards and make it clear that you are expecting them to be adhered to. After all, why is it that she was getting a problem in the first place? Because she had either not set the standards or had not taken any corrective actions when it was required.

How will this help?

It will make it very clear to everyone that the standards have been raised, but she won’t have to deal with any difficult issues in the meeting itself. It will also mean that those who are having problems won’t get embarrassed in the meeting (this can result in all kinds of awkward and hard to handle situations).

In other words, the meeting will run smoothly and she’ll get much better results for the business into the bargain.

It Goes Without Saying

So often I hear people say this. No it doesn’t.

They think that people will somehow automatically know what they are supposed to be doing or preparing.

I don’t subscribe to the theory that people deliberately mess up meetings. They do it because they are busy and thoughtless. They haven’t realised they are wasting everyone else’s time and costing the organisation money.

They are just focussed on themselves. By being clearer you will prompt them into action (well, in some cases, shame them into action). This can have a really big impact, so don’t delay – do it today.

Lastly

You might also ask yourself what preparation you should be doing for other people’s meetings. If it’s not clear, ask them.

None of us enjoys long boring meetings where we are merely repeating stuff that has gone before and not making any progress. You can put a stop to them with a little effort.

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Is It You Or Is It Them?

A Difficult Meeting

A long time ago I was a school governor (on the school board) of a city centre school.

We had very few resources and most of the students at the school were in single parent families living on benefits.

I ran a meeting one evening for a sub-group about a particularly difficult issue. It was to agree a way forward with a very disturbed pupil who had behaved rather badly towards a teacher. There was one participant in this meeting who was very awkward. She appeared to be a ‘sweet little old lady’ but was a fully paid up member of the ‘hang ’em, flog ’em’ society.

As I recall, she was not on the relevant panel but had decided to come to the meeting anyway.

In most of our meetings she would constantly interrupt and talk over others. She had an opinion on everything and it was usually the complete opposite of everyone else’s. We’ll call her Mavis.

I went through the objective of the meeting (agree a plan of action for this pupil) and the agenda (outlining the facts, the options, agreeing criteria and making a decision), including the time I expected the meeting to finish. This had not been done before and was received with some surprise. I asked Mavis if that was acceptable. Astonished, she said yes.

I then outlined the situation and the options available. I asked Mavis for her thoughts on each option. Strangely she did not have many. I asked all the others.

We identified a clear set of criteria for making our decision, which I wrote on a flip chart.

I then asked people to identify which of the options met the agreed criteria, starting with Mavis. She really didn’t have much to say about it.

We agreed our way forward and finished well within the time allotted.

Afterwards, people came up to me saying how astonished they were at the way Mavis had behaved.

Where Difficult Behaviour Comes From

Over the years I’ve worked with many people on their problems with others. Most of them start from the point of assuming that the issue lies with the other party.

Recently I have worked with several people who run lots of meetings. They have complained that the attendees, often project teams, have not prepared, have not completed their tasks from last time and do not turn up on time for the meetings.

They cite these failings as the reason for their own problems in achieving their objectives and delivering on time.

When I get this kind of situation I usually ask the individuals some questions:

  • What preparation do you do for the meeting yourself?
  • What is the objective of these meetings?
  • What do you ask people to prepare?
  • What do you tell them about the structure of the meeting?
  • What are the agreed responsibilities in the meeting?
  • When are your meetings supposed to start?
  • When do you actually start them?
  • How often have you discussed the same topic more than once?
  • How often have you made the same decision more than once?


By this time they are usually looking concerned. As you can imagine, they have started to realise that they may not have done as much as they could have done to rectify the situation.

Meeting Preparation

When we talk about this people usually think we just mean an agenda. But in my meeting, when I knew Mavis would be attending, I did a lot more preparation than just the agenda.

I worked out a strategy for dealing with Mavis. I reviewed her past behaviour, thought about why she might be behaving like this and identified some tools that would probably help her to behave more appropriately.

Others complained to me that Mavis had said she would come to the meeting even though she wasn’t on the relevant committee. I prepared them for my strategy and asked for their support (which they all willingly gave, glad that they weren’t having to deal with it themselves).

I stashed several other tools up my sleeve in case the first one didn’t work.

Blame The Others

It’s all too easy to blame others for their poor behaviour, and of course, they are responsible for their actions. However, we can make it easier for them to choose a more appropriate way of behaving with a little forethought and planning.

Signs of Good Preparation

When you see a meeting that ‘runs itself’ it’s a sign of effective preparation. These things don’t happen by accident. It means you can focus on the task in hand, rather than how badly run the meeting is.

Preparation may have involved many different ideas, only used a few of which have been used. But it’s not just the topic that you need to prepare; it’s identifying how people might feel and behave during a meeting, and finding ways to deal with that if necessary, so you are ready.

Many people I’ve worked with haven’t even thought about this as part of their preparation, perhaps because they don’t realise there is anything you can do about the problems. But there is plenty.

Just thinking about it beforehand is a good start, and perhaps asking yourself some of those questions….

How Did I Control Mavis?

Just in case you would like to know the tool I used that was so effective with Mavis, here it is. People who constantly interrupt are usually concerned that they won’t get their say. If you overwhelm them with opportunities to do that, they run out of things to say. They also loose their fear of not being able to have their say.

So I asked Mavis’s opinion throughout the meeting. Possibly 20 times or more. She said far less than usual, and I maintained control.

Try it. I hope it works for you.


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How Easily Do You Take Offence?

In February I sent out an email about Prioritisation that started with a slightly modified quote from the great Jane Austen.

I was delighted that one of our readers spotted it and wrote back saying that he was planning a day whose theme will be the writings of Jane Austen and how they relate to leadership and staff management.

I thought this was an excellent idea and so, when he asked me if I had any more quotes to recommend I was only too pleased to start on the task.

One that particularly took my eye was this one:

“We must not be so ready to fancy ourselves intentionally injured.”
This is Jane Bennett in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ pointing out something that I think most of us could do with learning.

I so often see problems caused by people jumping to the conclusion that others have deliberately caused them harm. I’m sure I’ve done it too.

Why Do We Think Others Are Acting Deliberately?

Let’s look at how our brain works. We get inputs; we see, hear and feel things. These inputs go to the back of your brain. Then they are sent to the front for processing. If they are processed by the left frontal lobe, we interpret them as opportunities; if by the right frontal lobe, we see them as threats.

So the same input can be interpreted in completely different ways. Once we have interpreted them, we respond.

The Response

This depends on the interpretation, and human brains seem generally much keener to file inputs as threats than opportunities. Of course, this is a basic survival strategy and is responsible for keeping many of your ancestors alive and in the gene pool.

The Problem

Constantly interpreting inputs as threats can cause you problems. Once you think you are threatened, your brain starts to worry about that, so you literally have less space for thinking about the situation.

That’s why it’s sometimes hard to see a positive explanation in these situations.

It also makes it much more difficult for you to see opportunities when they present themselves.

The Trick

The trick is to form a habit that means you do focus on the positive where possible.

Dealing With Unintentional Offence

There are two sides to this: causing offence and taking offence.

To illustrate the point here’s an example of what happened to me one Christmas.

The Wrong Socks

My mother likes a particular kind of sock, only available at John Lewis. So I have occasionally bought her these for Christmas or birthday presents.

One year I bought several pairs in her favourite colours. When she opened them she exclaimed: ‘Why have you bought me these short socks when you know I don’t like them?’

I was completely mortified. I’d gone to a great deal of trouble to get what I thought were the right ones.

Here’s my response:
‘Are you suggesting that I deliberately bought you the short socks because I knew you wouldn’t like them?’

To which she replied: ‘No’.

I then apologised for the error, and suggested that I would take them back and get them changed and asked if that would be OK. She was happy with this.

Two Sides

The person who has unwittingly caused the offence needs to apologise and the one who has taken offence needs to accept the apology and be prepared to accept an explanation other than the one that’s stuck in their head, or at least consider it.

I sometimes think that the individual who has taken offence can have more difficulty in these situations, because it involves admitting a little responsibility on their side and, possibly admitting they were wrong in their initial assessment.

Admitting You Are Wrong

Most of us don’t really like doing this. So we need to make it easy for people and possibly not force them into having to do that. Phrases like ‘I can see how this could look from your perspective’ or ‘I can understand why you would have thought that’ can help here.

But sometimes you just have to ask the direct question as I did to my mother. She couldn’t really have answered that she did think I’d deliberately bought something to annoy her. And her initial response was a purely knee-jerk reaction with little or no thinking involved on her part. This is so often the case.

Checking If You Really Need To Be Offended

Going back to Jane Bennett and Jane Austen, the point here is to be a little more generous in our interpretation of the behaviour of others. Once we have made negative assumptions about someone else or their behaviour, it makes it all the more difficult to deal with them effectively.

Usually our goal is to deal with people effectively. Making negative assumptions about their behaviour and motivation is the hallmark of immaturity. It’s what small children do because they know no better. Now, I’m not saying that people never have bad intentions; I’m just saying that we should assume the best at first (innocent until proven guilty).

I suggest this for just two reasons:

  • I believe it’s the right thing to do (it’s how we’d like others to treat us and that is always a useful guide)
  • It’s far more effective

To share your thoughts and comments about taking offence, go to my blog:

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Putting Off Decisions

I recently heard about some people who were sacked for not making decisions. Their manager was interviewed on the radio. Unfortunately the interviewer did not investigate this area. He was more concerned with finding out if their managers had been fired too.

However, the point I would like to discuss here is about decision-making.

These individuals were in very difficult jobs. They were social workers. So some of the decisions they had to make were clearly extremely hard; like deciding whether to take someone’s children away from them.

I imagine most of us are grateful that we don’t have to make decisions like that. I know I am.

I don’t know the details of this particular situation, but have certainly seen many situations where decisions that should have been made have not been, or where they have been delayed far longer than they should have been or than necessary

Putting It Off Is A Decision

What we often forget is that deciding not to decide is a decision in itself. Often not a conscious one, but just as important, and just as risky.

In our own case, we delayed replacing a supplier when now, in retrospect, we should have done it months ago. It’s always easy to see these things looking back.

Why Do We Put Off Decisions?

For us, there were several reasons:
  • We kept hoping things would get better (in spite of all the evidence to the contrary)
  • We had not kept accurate records of how much it was costing us (thousands)
  • We had not set clear criteria for making the decision
  • We did not have SMART objectives

The Background

After several months of a project that should have taken weeks, we were ‘nearly there’. This continued for several more months. At each review there we were just a few actions away from completion.

After a while we had put so much effort into it that we managed to convince ourselves that it would be worth just a bit more effort to get it going. And a bit more, and a bit more….

A Common Problem

The trouble is that, as far as your brain is concerned, this item is now very valuable so it doesn’t want to you to throw it away.

Your brain hates losing something much more than it likes gaining the same thing (nearly three times as much).

Not Keeping Count of the Costs

Because we don’t usually have to do this, we don’t do it in situations where we should. We simply don’t recognise how bad things are. When I am working with people on time management workshops they often complain about others who waste their time.

This happens for all kinds of reasons. You know the types:

  • People who ask you for things at the last minute when they have known about something for ages
  • People who ask you for the same information time and time again
  • People who waste time in meetings by not being prepared
  • People who constantly interrupt you with small, annoying things all through the day

A very useful technique for dealing with these people is to use an approach where you measure how much time it has taken over the last week or two (in other words, the cost). It’s always a shock. Usually it’s at least twice what you think it is.

Help Them To Recognise The Costs Of Their Behaviour

Often, all you have to do is ask:

‘Do you know how many times you have asked me for that information this week?’

When they hazard a guess, you give them the facts. They are generally so embarrassed that they stop.

Criteria

This is the most important issue. Unless people have clear criteria for making decisions they often either make the wrong decisions or don’t make decisions at all, as in the example at the beginning.

I have often found that managers don’t really understand the criteria they are using to make decisions and, because of this, either don’t delegate this responsibility effectively or don’t delegate it at all.

So often I’ve had managers tell me that ‘it’s just too complicated’ or the people that work for them aren’t capable of making these decisions (their evidence being that they have got it wrong in the past).

However, when we’ve really looked at it, the main reason for failing to delegate is that they are not clear in their own heads how they are making the decision themselves.

How To Delegate Decision Making

In one example a department was responsible for sifting through hundreds of applications from other companies for joint ventures. About 1 in 400 was successful. Because they were so swamped with applications (and so desperate to find successful ones) they needed to delegate this task.

The manager said he just ‘knew’ which ones were likely to succeed. This, loosely translated means ‘I have criteria stuck in my head somewhere, I just don’t know what they are consciously’.

So I got him to go through some unsuccessful and successful applications with me. Pretty soon we had some clear criteria. They were things like:

  • Size of market for the proposed product
  • Cost of manufacture
  • Number of competitors in the market
  • Size of competitors

Now I know you’re going to say that these are all really obvious. But that’s the thing about criteria; they are obvious once they are out in the open.

I don’t know any of the details of the social workers I mentioned earlier, and it may be that they did have clear criteria for making decisions and there was some other reason for their failure. But in my experience, once people have clear criteria they generally find it much easier to make decisions.

One Last Requirement

People need to know that their manager will back them up when they do make a decision. I have come across many cases where people would not make decisions because they knew they would not be backed up.

In one company I ran a large department. Many of the team had been hired when they were made redundant over the years from a large local employer who had frequent rounds of redundancies. This was great for us as they were highly skilled people, very well trained.

But initially I had great trouble managing them because none of these people was willing to make a decision. The reason? That’s why they had lost their jobs. People who did make decisions and got it wrong were fired.

I regard it as unbelievably stupid to spend so much money on training people but then to manage them so poorly. You won’t be surprised to learn that the company that did this is no longer there. It is a great shame.

How well are decisions delegated in your organisation? How well do you do it? And what about your manager?