Have you ever experienced the gut-flipping moment that results from asking somebody to do something and then, when they present the work shortly before the deadline, it’s not what you were hoping for? Or maybe you experience that another person or team keeps not delivering what they are asked?

Every day we speak to our colleagues and make requests of them. We talk about the jobs that the team needs to do and the tasks that are required to complete that job. We engage with our colleagues and discuss those tasks and building expectations in the process. Despite the importance of communication in the workplace that results in work activity, and therefore resource expenditure, very rarely do we stop to think twice about whether we are communicating our expectations clearly.

We make assumptions, often big assumptions.  

What makes you think that what is in your head is replicated with any degree of fidelity in the mind of your colleague? The idea that the recipient of our request is anything less than 100% on the same wavelength does not occur to us until something goes wrong and we are unsatisfied with the outcome. Bizarrely, teams rarely train themselves on how to talk to each other in a way that ensures complete understanding and ultimate satisfaction. Human nature seems to demand that we take some ‘risk’ for the sake of not embarrassing the person we are asking to do the work. It is deemed to be demeaning to seek clarification because the implication is that the person might not have been listening or have heard you correctly. 

The more likely truth is that your request did not contain all the information necessary for the recipient to fully understand your request. Without your effort to clarify expectations, you are never going to know if your colleague understands the required task in the same way that you do.  This is normally avoided before the final deadline because team members don’t work in total isolation – or at least they didn’t pre-COVID. The risk is certainly greater in a virtual world and we think steps should now be taken to minimize the risk of miscommunication before something big goes wrong!

Teamwork in a virtual world requires more discipline than in a physical world where you can see the physical response of individuals with whom you interact. Actions need to be more deliberate and the risk of misinterpretation should be weighed up when making requests. For this reason, we think teams should now consider tightening up communication using ‘Commitment Based Communication’, a system that forms part of our High-Performance Team training, to be cleaner and more effective. Following this approach ensures that slip ups have far less chance of occurring and teams perform more effectively and efficiently.

The Basics of Commitment Based Communication (CBC)

Commitment Based Communication – based on Fernando Flores’ book Conversations for Action – is a robust and systematic way of interacting with fellow team members about the tasks that a team needs to accomplish.  By following the CBC approach, potential misunderstandings are avoided, and resources are allocated to what needs to be done, not what team members think needs to be done.

Under CBC, making a request for work has four phases:

  1. Prepare – the process that leads to a clean request being made by the ‘customer’ (can be internal or external and is the person needing the work done) to a ‘performer’ (the person destined to do the work)
  2. Negotiate – an interaction between the customer and performer to ensure full alignment on, and understanding of, the request by the performer
  3. Perform – the performer executes the request as agreed
  4. Accept – the customer receives the work from the performer and declares their satisfaction with the work…or not!

Let’s explore each step in a little more detail.

Prepare for a Request

A request is most commonly made within teams, usually by team leaders and managers to team members. It can also be made by a customer external to the team.  Either way, as the customer, you are required to explain what you need to be done. If you are not 100% clear what the end product should look like, the chance that you will not get back what you want, or need, is high. As the customer, you should be very clear on all the details of the request that would result in your satisfaction, and what would need to be in place to declare – at the end – that you are happy with the work undertaken.

A request should include several key elements:

  • The request: what you want the performer to do
  • Purpose: why you want the performer to complete this task
  • Conditions for satisfaction: what a successful outcome looks like for you
  • Background: what is the context for this request and is it sufficiently obvious for the performer?
  • Completion date: a date and time by which the task should be completed.

The customer will then approach the performer, so that you can present the request or offer in a clear way. Despite its almost ubiquitous use for this purpose, an email is not a great way to make requests and should be used only as a backup to the conversation.  Email provides no efficient way to negotiate the task.

Negotiate and Promise…or not

A request is not a one-way process. When the customer presents the request to the performer, it is the performer’s responsibility to ask questions for clarification until both parties are convinced that they understand the request.  The customer needs to be prepared for the performer to say ‘no’, ‘not now’ or ‘not me’, and should create space for those options to be permissible. This is the principle of the counteroffer. Until a promise is made, the offer may be declined by the customer, or the performer can make a ‘counteroffer’ as part of the negotiation process. The counteroffer is designed to capture and accommodate the concerns of either party – this could be anything as simple as the expected delivery date to a more fundamental redesigning of the work being offered.

Once the performer has an understanding, they should explain the request and the conditions for satisfaction back to the customer to demonstrate that the request has been understood. Once both parties are confident that each understands what is being requested, the performer will then commit to deliver through a ‘promise’ and both parties commit to keep their ends of the bargain. The customer is likely to have some role to play in ensuring the performer delivers as expected. The deadline date will be firmly agreed, highly specific and agreed as acceptable by both parties. It is important that the performer must be careful not to promise to achieve a deadline that is not feasible for them.

Perform – the show must go on!

Having agreed ‘check-in’ points where both parties reassure themselves during the task that the performer is on the right track and likely to meet the agreed deadline, the performer undertakes the task. At any stage, the performer may declare a breakdown – and this should be handled very shortly after they become aware that either cannot meet the deadline or, more fundamentally, cannot perform the task. Such a declaration should move the parties back into the negotiation phase to re-contract on expectations and conditions for satisfaction.

Acceptance and Acknowledgement

Eventually, the performer will present their work to the customer at or before the agreed time. The customer will then review the work against the conditions for satisfaction and declare their acceptance if they are happy with the outcome. Once acceptance is received, this contract is complete.  If the customer decides they want to change or expand the brief, this is considered new work which should flow through the same cycle to ensure satisfaction of both parties. If the performer has failed to meet any of the conditions for satisfaction these should be pointed out and steps taken to rectify the breakdown as soon as possible. If done properly, this should be a rare occurrence.

The customer should acknowledge the efforts of the performer. Gratitude is a powerful motivator and helps forms lasting mutually supportive relationships.

The Curious Thing About Insists

When first using CBC in our own business, one of the biggest learnings was that requests are exactly that and may be declined. In traditional hierarchical structures, it is virtually heresy to suggest that a team member could say ‘no’ in any way to a team leader. This often results in huge amounts of wasted time and resource. CBC will only work at its best if a negative response is a permitted and valued part of your team’s culture. How to do this skilfully is the subject of a future article.

Nevertheless, there will be times when a leader has no choice and will invoke an ‘insist’. When an insist occurs, the performer must accept the task. They can and indeed must ask questions for clarification, but at the end of it they do not have a choice to decline. Leaders should use insists sparingly. They have the potential to undermine morale, autonomy, and engagement. Critically, leaders should take care not to make requests appear as if they are insists. In traditional business cultures, this will require a very deliberate initial effort (and deliberate practice) on the part of both the performer and customer (leader), but in time new habits will embed themselves.

Improving Team Performance and Cohesiveness

How has your team changed during the onslaught of COVID? Have you emerged stronger and more together as a team, despite only seeing each other in virtual meetings? Or do you feel more detached, stressed, and a little less certain about how you work together? Wherever you find yourself, it would be unusual for you to be thinking that you and your team are functioning optimally. Why not start a journey right now towards higher levels of performance?

If you’d like to know more, please contact us at , visit our website, or download our brochure here.