All posts by Steve Willlis

Influencer QA

The Memo-Fication of Responsibility

It took a global pandemic to help me see something that’s been going on for years: the slow and steady memo-fication of responsibility. This pattern really became evident as I was introduced to a local company’s “back to work” plan.

Their leadership team understands that times have changed and that they need to embrace new workplace practices when it’s safe to return to work. They’re a thoughtful group, and it shows in the amount of time and effort they’ve put into to learning about best practices for maintaining workplace safety amidst the coronavirus outbreak. They really want their employees to be safe and feel safe.

After some time researching and crafting a well-thought-out plan, they formatted all their ideas into a memo for public consumption and launched their program, satisfied they had done enough.

“I wonder how long it will be before it takes hold in the organization?” mused one leader as they reflected on their efforts. “No need to wonder!” I responded. “We have a lot of examples of essential businesses that have already gone through this.” I then related the following story.

The other day, one of my good friends and colleagues braved the risks of shopping in a pandemic to stock up on needed essentials. Mask in place, he stepped from the sanctity of his car and moved toward the wild frontier marked “Enter Here.” As he approached the entrance, he couldn’t help but notice a large sign outlining some health and safety guidelines, the primary of which was “No mask, no shopping here.” Pretty clear.

Once inside, however, he found people following a different rule: “No mask, no problem.” Which ended up being a big problem for many customers and employees alike.

But what about the sign right outside the entrance? And how about the other signs throughout the store indicating the same thing? Shouldn’t that be enough? What is enough?

Maybe you’re at the point of launching your own back-to-work plan, or maybe you know someone who is. You may be worried that your plan is fated to low compliance like the retail store mentioned above.

If so, understand that the success of your plan will have very little to do with the plan itself. It could be the greatest plan ever devised, and it could still fall short. Why? It stems from the memo-fication of a plan—when it’s turned into a formal position document and posted in a public place, virtual or physical, with the expectation that the “memo” will prompt employees and customers to follow through on the plan. One retail industry leader summed it up this way during a recent interview: “It shouldn’t be the role of a retail employee to enforce the [rules]. Stores should rely on signs and PA announcements to inform the public of the rules.”1

Let me be clear. I’m not suggesting that leaders who do this are insensitive or uncaring. Many well-intentioned, thoughtful leaders memo-fy the responsibility for plans in an effort to make employees’ lives easier. But in the end, those employees are the ones who suffer most.

It’s tempting for leaders to believe that if they elevate a person’s understanding of an issue, behavior change will follow inevitably. In reality, until you teach your people at all levels to take responsibility for the new plan, it’s doomed to wane while everyone involved whines about it.

Wise leaders take a different track. While most leaders are gearing down once they’ve memo-fied their plan, the best leaders are gearing up. They realize that their people face an overabundance of triggers that initiate a series of auto-pilot behaviors—which, by the way, usually run contrary to the new behaviors they need to adopt. For example, people often leave home without a mask because nothing reminded them to wear a mask. So, by the time they are reminded, at the front door of the store, it’s too late to comply with expected behavior.

Good leaders understand that the memo is not enough to change behavior, and presuming it is leaves employees stuck in an extremely tough position. Employees then feel unprepared to deal with violations, because they ARE unprepared. The memo didn’t work. Not even a second or third reading made it more effective.

Here are some things effective leaders do to help employees take responsibility for a plan, so they’re plan doesn’t slowly succumb to the process of memo-fication.

It starts at the door. Think of your workplace as a unique cultural enclave. Regardless of what’s happening outside of it, focus on what happens inside. One of the best ways to do this is to conduct a trigger audit. Identify the existing triggers of counter-productive behaviors (for example, meeting rooms that would invite close congregation) and add new triggers that make it easy for people to adopt the new behaviors (spaced desks, for example). Design the environment so that it’s easy to remember and enact the new behaviors.

It continues with your people. Have people practice the new behaviors. As McDonald’s prepares to re-open, they’ve designed practice scenarios that help employees take responsibility for themselves and others. They not only practice safe health routines; they also practice what to do when someone else deviates from those routines. And since they expect most of those deviations to come from customers, they’ve developed specific scripts related to customer situations. They understand that it takes people at all levels holding one another accountable to breathe life into any initiative.

It ends with you. Upper management might decide to roll a plan out, but it’s how leaders promote and support the plan that determines whether people will do their part to make it reality. Your people are looking for evidence of your support. It needs to be unmistakably obvious. It’s not enough to voice your support; you have to back that up with actions. Actions like publicly praising those who confront you in a moment you weren’t adhering to agreed-upon behaviors.

Only when you take the responsibility out of the memo and enable your people to take responsibility at all levels will you see real change happen.

1 “Leaving Employees to Enforce Social Distancing.” Marketplace. Accessed June 8, 2020.

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Keep Your Distance and Your Friends

Dear Steve,

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m trying to be safe by following the health practices outlined by the CDC, WHO, and other officials. I don’t consider myself stringent, nor lax. I feel I am somewhere in between. But apparently that’s not how others see me. My requests for distance have offended others. I try to be kind, and yet people respond in a huff as though I’m an unreasonable jerk. What should I do?

Conscientious and Confused

Dear Conscientious,

Thank you for your excellent question. I witnessed an incident between a customer and storeowner that perfectly portrays the conflict you’re describing. It started with a curse word. Which was followed by an explanation, along with more curse words. Not to be outdone, the customer retorted with an equally impressive set of curse words, coupled with, well, more curse words. The argument ended with the proprietor demanding that the customer leave his establishment—immediately!

I watched this interaction between proprietor and customer transpire in less time than it takes to microwave popcorn. Did it have to end this way? No. Did either want it to end this way? Probably not. Yet, both felt justified in his response, and might respond the same way again, if faced with a similar situation.

Unfortunately, since the arrival of the novel coronavirus and the measures people are taking to contain it, this type of interaction has become more common. It seems the precautionary measures themselves aren’t so controversial, but where and how they are applied can be. It turns out that different people have different risk-tolerance levels and different ideas of risk, which leads to opportunities for conflict.

In 2015, VitalSmarts conducted a study looking at how unconscious bias contributes to conflict, and whether it’s possible to reduce its impact. And while that particular study was about unconscious gender bias, we also have unconscious biases about health and hygiene.

We learned from that 2015 study that we can reduce the influence of unconscious bias on behavior by explicitly framing certain situations.

Framing is the act of sharing background and rationale for one’s behavior in order to dispel assumptions—or biases—about it. It’s useful for dealing with a broad or vague context where behavior can be misinterpreted. The broad context in the case of COVID-19 is the everyday interaction between people. By expressing your purpose and motive for specific health-related behaviors, you clear up unknowns that might otherwise allow unconscious bias to generate misunderstanding.

While there are different frames you could use, let me offer two that might be particularly useful in the event you decline to shake someone’s hand, ask a guest to cough into their arm, invite someone to remain on the porch, or follow some other COVID-related health practice.

The Behavioral Frame: With a behavioral frame, you signal to others what you intend to do, and then you proceed to do it. This frame helps remove the surprise that often accompanies unanticipated actions. Instead of leaving the person to their own potentially inaccurate interpretation of your actions, you provide context up front. For example, the cursing cousins we started with might have had a more fruitful exchange had one led with, “Just so you know, we’re wiping down all the counters and doorknobs after anybody touches them to ensure these common areas stay germ-free. So, I’m going to disinfect this display case after you’re done looking.”

The Value Frame: The value frame highlights the “why” of your actions. While your values are readily apparent to you, they typically aren’t to others. So, help them understand what your actions mean to you and how they relate to less obvious values. As with the retail altercation described above, we often resort to this frame after a situation has escalated, which can have the effect of a guilt trip. Instead, try leading with it. It might sound something like, “It might seem excessive to you, but I’m taking extra precaution to keep the area and myself sanitized because I have a three-year-old-daughter who’s in the high-risk category.”

As you find yourself in these types of situations in the days and weeks to come, remember you don’t have to choose between keeping yourself safe and keeping friends. Choose both. Use a behavior frame, a value frame, or both to help yourself and others avoid rash judgements and conflict.

Good luck,

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Talk with Your Manager About a Promotion

Dear Steve,

What do you say to your manager in order to move from a level two to a level three? How do you talk about career advancement and convince them you are ready for the next step?

Moving On Up

Dear Moving,

Oh, yes. The “level-up” conversation. You want to show that you’re serious about moving upward in the organization. It will likely take significant work on your part to make this happen.

First of all, you need to understand that your manager is always evaluating your performance against certain criteria—sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly. So, start by doing your homework. Show your boss that you’re serious by taking the initiative to do some research before you talk with him or her about your goal. Many organizations have written job descriptions and success criteria for different roles. Find out what your organization has in place, and make sure to research both your current position as well as the position you hope to gain. Existing KPIs or other similar measures can be useful to get a better picture of role criteria. You may also want to talk to the person who has the role you aspire to—especially when no formal document exists.

Once you’ve collected this information, evaluate yourself against both your role and the new role. Assessing your current performance will help you determine whether you can present a good case for promotion to your manager. Assessing yourself against the expectations of the role you seek will give you a sense of your potential.

Next, arrange to have an exploratory conversation with your boss. With your pre-work in hand, outline what you were able to find and ask your boss to identify any additional criteria you may have missed. Make sure to discuss where you are currently meeting those criteria and where you are falling short (this is where having done an honest self-assessment will come in handy). As you listen, take notes and continue to invite your boss’s feedback until he or she doesn’t have anything else to add.

You may find as a result of this exploration that you meet enough of the criteria to warrant a promotion. If that’s the case, it’s time for an open, direct conversation with your boss about moving into the new role, or a conversation about why you aren’t being considered for the role. If you have to navigate this latter discussion, make sure you spend as much time inquiring about your boss’s perspective as you do advocating your own.

If done well, this exploratory conversation should give you a pretty clear picture of what it will take to move to the next level. Next, you’ll need to do the work to demonstrate that you are ready for the promotion. And as you start into that work, I’ve found it helpful to convey intentions. Let me explain.

One of my favorite sayings is “It’s hard to talk your way out of a situation you behaved your way into.” When there is incongruity between what you say and what you do, people start to question your ability and integrity. The good news is that the contrapositive is true: it’s relatively easy to behave your way out of a situation you talked yourself into.

What I mean is this: when you align your actions with your words, you convey a sense of reliability and trust. So, the most effective thing you can do once you have the criteria for promotion is to let your boss know what you intend to do, and then do it.

Remember to break your plan into small, actionable segments so it’s doable. And make sure that each of those segments has a direct, explicit connection to your overall goals and objectives.

While following this process doesn’t guarantee the promotion you seek, it does provide a framework you can use to surface less obvious performance criteria, create a reasonable action plan, and build a reputation as a person who delivers.

Good luck. I hope your next correspondence is under a new title.