As much as we wish these things didn’t occur, we sometimes find ourselves having to leave a project early or terminate a business engagement. This is always difficult to do, and how you do it can help you maintain your integrity and credibility throughout the transition.
Recently, I had to terminate a business relationship myself. Here are a few lessons that I learned that you can apply the next time you are in a similar situation.
1. Place the blame on yourself. I know you wouldn’t be leaving a project or quitting a business relationship if it were all your fault, but the key thing here is that you need to buck up and take responsibility for the business arrangement ending. There are several ways you can frame it to take the emphasis for the decision away from the other party. For example: “I’m sorry, but I just don’t have the ability to deliver the work to you in a manner that you have grown accustomed to” or “I find myself at a point where I don’t feel my presence best serves the project, and I think a new set of eyes is going to be helpful to getting things back on track.” Or, you can come up with your own. The point is that you take a little of the emphasis off the party that you are ending the relationship with and place it on yourself. This will lessen any bad blood or negativity from the decision. It is important to note that you must cast the decision in terms of your inability to continue to serve the client in a manner that he or she deserves.
2. If possible, present options for replacements.If you find yourself at a point of no return and need out of a business relationship, you can soften the blow even more if you provide alternatives. The question you are probably asking yourself is, “If I can’t work with this person or on this project, why would I refer them to someone else?” But the truth is, we are all in different businesses and at different stages of our career — and while your threshold for some clients may be zero, someone just starting out or looking to find a different focus may be more than willing to accept a challenge that you consider unnecessary. This goes back to the first point: If you can’t serve the client in the way that he or she deserves, you are doing the client a favor by removing yourself from the project and helping him or her find someone who can do better.
3. Be prepared for blowback.Even when these things go great, there will be some sort of blowback or negative impact. You might have spelled everything out with as much tact as a veteran diplomat, but you are still leaving the business relationship with a jilted partner who may lash out to other members of your organization or other potential business partners. In this instance, you can try to contain any negative feedback or impact on you and your career by preparing a standard statement that you give to everyone that explains your role in the dissolution of the relationship. It should cast a bad situation in the most favorable light for you. One I have used is: “I am sorry the project didn’t work out, but I made a series of unwise choices that made my effectiveness impossible, and to best serve the project, I felt it was best for me to step away.” That’s it — it isn’t perfect, but neither is the situation you find yourself in.
How have you found success in ending business relationships?
Join meon December 4, 2014, in my upcoming seminar on leadership in project management.
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?
In my last post, I discussed my experience at the lab and insurance desk at a hospital. Now I'd like to share the remainder of the story and my analysis on the lessons learned from the hospital stay.
A nurse on my first evening in the hospital asked me to sign some papers. As I read the papers, there was a note that said I should not sign if the paperwork was not explained to my satisfaction. I looked at the nurse and said, "No one has explained anything to me. How can I sign?" The nurse looked at me and asked me to hold on for a moment. After some time, a doctor came, explained the process and situations that could arise during the operation. I asked some more questions that he answered, and I signed the papers.
Thursday morning, the operation was completed successfully, with follow-up visits by the doctor and nurse. On Friday, the process continued. A group of three senior staffers came in the room, introducing themselves as administrators, and asked if the air conditioning, food and other services were okay. In the evening, the doctor visited again and told me all was well and he would discharge me the following day. He said he would start the process in the morning and requested my patience as the billing and insurance-approval process might take many hours, even perhaps the whole day.
On Saturday morning, the administration staff visited again and asked if all was well. At noon, the staff took my signature on the bill and asked me to wait for approval. I sat around and inquired about the approval few times, but no luck. I finally got approval by 7 p.m. -- but by that point I had had dinner at the hospital and afterward moved to my house.
My experience at the lab and at the hospital were quite opposite. At the lab, the work at hand was minor, but it escalated. However, at the hospital the work at hand was greater and there were more opportunities for issues to arise, yet all went well. I think it was the hospital's well-defined process and disciplined execution that allowed for a smooth experience.
Takeaway 1: Words Have No Meaning, Only Action Works
At the lab, the manager was trying to defuse a situation by promising and explaining, but actions were missing, and therefore the matter became heated. At the hospital, when I was asked to sign papers without explanation, I raised the concern -- and the nurse and doctor both handled it well by doing what was expected without uttering a single word to the contrary.
Takeaway 2: Keep the Ego Under Control
The manager at the lab appeared to possess a big ego. First, he did not accept the problem; moreover, he defended his and his team's actions. Second, as he was also a doctor, he could have collected the blood himself but chose not to, perhaps because it wasn't in his job description. He missed the opportunity to win over customers and set an example for his staff.
Takeaway 3: Set Expectations
If the hospital staff had not set expectations that it would take two hours for approval on the estimated cost and a whole day for approval on the final bill, I would have waited impatiently and probably fought with the staff over the delays. But setting expectations in advance helped them control customer reactions and achieve satisfaction.
Takeaway 4: Have a Process, Maintain Discipline and Re-evaluate
The most interesting thing I found is that the administration staff visited my room twice and personally asked if all was going well. They were monitoring that discipline was being maintained and if anything in the process needed to be fixed. I think this was critical in ensuring foolproof processes and disciplined staff.
What's the top customer service lesson you've learned from an unlikely source?
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?