When you have to deliver bad news, the processes you use are at least as important as the decision you've made.
Take this example: The car manufacturing industry in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia is in the process of ceasing manufacturing and moving to an importing business. Over the next few years, thousands of jobs will be lost or transformed. Progress and change are inevitable, and the transition has been reluctantly accepted by most people. However, I was really surprised--when the first major round of layoffs occurred a few weeks ago at a manufacturer--to hear the local trades union representative complimenting the factory management on the way it had handled the decision of who should go now, who had a job for a few more months and who would be relocated into the new import business.
The key factor was not the decision or its fairness. The key was the empathy and consideration shown to each of the laid-off workers by their management, and the fact that the members of the management team (most of whom would be losing their jobs as well) had taken the time to speak with each worker and appreciate his or her input to the business over many years.
By applying "process fairness" and giving everyone a chance to be heard, what could have been a very angry and disruptive event was transformed into a wake to remember the good times and the contributions made by the industry. It was still a sad and stressful time, but far less so than it might otherwise have been.
So what is process fairness and why is it important?
Process fairness is quite distinct from outcome fairness. Outcome fairness refers to judgments made about the final outcome. In this case, it is unfair to lose your job after 20 or 30 years due to a combination of factors largely outside of anyone's control. Process fairness is aligned with the concepts of procedural fairness and natural justice, and particularly applies to decisions affecting the team leader/team member (or manager/employee) relationship. Broadly speaking, there are three intertwined components of process fairness:
Process fairness makes a big difference! A study of nearly 1,000 people--led by U.S. researchers E. Allan Lind and Jerald Greenberg (and cited in the book Manager's Desktop Consultant)--found that a major determinant of whether employees sue for wrongful termination is their perception of how fairly the termination process was carried out. Only 1 percent of ex-employees who felt they were treated with a high degree of process fairness filed a wrongful termination lawsuit, versus 17 percent of those who believed they were treated with a low degree of process fairness. Similar results can be found for patients suing doctors and customers suing businesses.
Process fairness doesn't ensure team members will always get what they want or that the final decision is "fair"--but it does ensure they will have a chance to be heard. It is also highly likely that a decision-maker who follows a fair process will reach a fair and correct decision.
Fairness demands that the affected people are told about the impending decision and are given the chance to reply before a decision that negatively affects their existing interest or legitimate expectations is made. Put simply, hearing both sides of the story is critical to good decision-making and happier team members.
There are six rules that apply to procedural justice (or natural justice), and they equally affect procedural fairness:
Process fairness in the workplace and in communication simply requires fairness to everyone--that is, when something is applied, it has to be applied to everyone and procedures need to be consistent with moral and ethical values.
So next time you have to make a decision that affects your team, rather than trying to make the best decision on your own, tell the members about the decision and the reasons it needs to be made, ask for their input and take the time to listen. Once you have reached your decision, explain the reasons clearly and leave space for feedback, particularly from anyone the decision will hurt. You may be surprised by the support you get from everyone.
Do you think your decision-making process is fair?
While frequently treated as separate topics, conflict management, problem-solving and decision-making are interrelated and all are focused on achieving the best possible outcome.
In an ideal world, there would always be sufficient information and rational maturity to allow you to treat everything as a problem and apply the following problem-solving steps to reach the optimum solution:
The trouble with this process is that problem-solving assumes there is a best answer -- that the information needed to determine the answer is available and that the people involved in the process are acting rationally. These circumstances are relatively rare!
Many of the problems that require solving are rooted in emotions. At its center, every conflict has people acting (or reacting) emotionally, and conflict management is focused on reducing the effect of emotions to allow the people in conflict to start acting rationally. Any effective solution to a conflict involves defining the problem, defining a solution space (e.g., a formal mediation), understanding the options, choosing a solution and then implementing the solution. The only difference is how these steps are implemented or imposed. The standard solution options are:
Different conflict-management processes are appropriate at different times. The primary focus is on reducing or managing the level of conflict, but eventually someone has to decide on the solution to the underlying problems.
Problem-solving and decision-making are also closely aligned. But the weakness of the problem-solving concept is the assumption that there is sufficient data to make the "right decision." Unfortunately, many decisions are not that simple!
The types of decisions you will be required to make range from "simple problems" through to "wicked problems":
The challenge of decision-making is to understand and balance the following:
Ultimately, good decision-making is firstly getting most decisions reasonably correct (luck plays a part) and then continually reviewing the consequences of your decisions to adapt, adjust and correct the suboptimal ones as quickly as possible. Generally, any considered decision made in the appropriate time frame is better than no decision or an unnecessarily delayed one.
How do you make your decisions when confronted with a problem?
A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) and most modern management texts emphasize leadership and motivation over directive control.
Yet if employee surveys are to be believed, around 70 percent of managers still operate in command-and-control mode. These managers rely on authority, discipline and fear to drive performance. And their team's commitment to the organization and performance suffer accordingly.
It's simply futile to tell people they must come up with a bright idea within the next 30 minutes or sanctions will be applied! Fear damages creativity and destroys openness; frightened people cannot work effectively in a knowledge economy.
If people are scared of being blamed, the last thing they'll do is pass on accurate information about an issue or a problem. And effective management decision-making depends on the open transmission of bad news. Project controls staff must know what's really happening and need honest estimates of future consequences to provide planning advice.
To understand how serious this problem can be, consider that one of the causes of the up to â‚¤425 million loss so far on the â‚¤2.4 billion U.K. Universal Credit program -- ultimately credited to "weak management, ineffective control and poor governance" -- was that no one in the development team felt able to highlight their problems to senior management. Fear of being blamed kept the knowledge of the problem from the people who needed to know.
Trusting and empowering your team, open communication, leadership and motivation are all closely interlinked and in combination create high-performance teams.
This is not a new concept. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Prussian military developed auftragstaktik (or mission command) under the core tenet of bounded initiative. The leader's role is to clearly outline his/her intentions and rationale. Assuming people have proper training and the organizational culture is strong, subordinates can then formulate their own plan of action based on their understanding of the actual situation.
What do these ideas mean for project managers?
How do you eliminate the "fear factor" from within your team?
Most points of difference can be resolved through negotiation, discussion or input from a third party. But other times, circumstances quickly descend into acrimony.
Bear in mind when a "fight" breaks out, it's always personal and emotional. If you can remove those two elements, all that remains is a difference or disagreement that can be resolved.
Unfortunately, emotions kick in quick and are far more powerful than rational thought. Fight or flight is one of the most basic of survival strategies. As soon as a trigger matching the learned pattern of a perceived threat is sensed, the fight reaction cuts in. Some time later -- a few seconds or a few hours later -- rational thought may override the need to fight, but it always lags the instantaneous emotional reaction.
The easiest of the conflicts to manage is where a stereotype is involved. You simply have to distinguish the specific person from the overall stereotype. For example, if a team member has an issue with the project management office (PMO), you can say: "Yes, everyone from the PMO is an interfering bureaucrat focused on wasting time by gathering excessive detail. But Mary from the PMO is different; she's really a 'project manager' and can make your job easy." In this scenario, you simply highlight Mary's positives and distance her from the PMO stereotype.
When the fight response is more personal, you should still try to remove the emotion, but your task is much harder. Remember, emotions are instinctive, and factors such as fatigue, stress and emotional events can all shift the balance of power toward the fight instinct.
Taking time out to cool down allows rational thinking to seep in, provided the emotions aren't triggered again as soon as the other person returns. This process can be encouraged by diversionary tactics, such as changing the focus or place of discussion, or doing something completely different. It's a good time to go down to the pub...
Mediators use a number of tactics to start a rational negotiation. One is to encourage each of the parties to let it all out and vent their anger in a controlled environment. Once a person has done this, it's very difficult to maintain the rage. Another is to hold one-on-one discussions and carry messages back and forth between the parties. This removes the trigger for fighting and allows messages to be heard. If there's any common ground, rational debate can start and, with luck and good management, continue once the parties are face to face.
A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) advocates keeping disagreements professional and based on rational discussions of information. While this is desirable, we're all people with emotions and sometimes those emotions will take over. A good manager recognizes this and allows time for emotions to settle before using more proactive negotiating tactics to bring rational debate back into play.
How do you deal with conflict?
Chinese military general Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War nearly 2,500 years ago. But his ideas still hold value on the art of stakeholder engagement. After all he did say: "The greatest victory is that which requires no battle," which should be the ultimate aim of every stakeholder engagement process.
One of the clearest messages from The Art of War is the supremacy of strategy over tactics and tactics over reaction. Yet project teams spend most of their time reacting to stakeholders with a few tactical activities, such as report distribution and progress meetings. This approach gives the initiative to the stakeholders. And, as we all know, not every stakeholder has the project's best interests at heart, and those who are supportive rarely have a deep understanding of your project's real needs.
Sun Tzu states that success is driven by strategy: "All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved." Planning your stakeholder engagement should involve far more than simply deciding who needs what information.
The starting point for a good strategy is good intelligence. "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles." Project practitioners and their teams need to understand who's important and why; what their attitude to the work is (and why); what you need from them (if anything); and what those people want from you.
After this analysis, key questions for the team include:
Now you're in a position to develop a pragmatic strategy to proactively engage with your stakeholder community, focusing on those people who matter. But beware: "Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." You and your team need to first understand your strategic intent and then develop appropriate tactics to implement the strategy.
You could, for example, produce the standard monthly report containing data on your project's environmental protection activities. Or, if you know that several senior stakeholders you need as allies are concerned about your organization's reputation, you could highlight the team's successful environmental efforts with a photo on the cover. No senior manager ever reads a report (particularly all of the boring data on environmental monitoring in the appendix). But they can't miss a cover photo -- or how you're helping them achieve one of their organizational objectives. Smart tactics, minimal effort, and now you now have some powerful friends. Similar approaches can be used to minimize the impact of stakeholders opposed to the project if you understand what's important to them.
Sun Tzu clearly shows that engaging with stakeholders requires more than reactive responses. The good news is a well-thought-out strategy -- implemented through nimble and effective tactics -- can virtually eliminate the need for reactive responses and crisis management, resulting in an overall saving of effort. "Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win."
Does your stakeholder-management strategy let you "win first" and then deliver an outcome that benefits your stakeholder community? What other stakeholder wisdom have you picked up from Sun Tzu?