Guest Column

The Seven Deadly Sins of Making Demands

by RON ASHKENAS

Most managers complain about the complexity of their organizations, but sometimes that complexity is self-generated through unconscious but counterproductive management actions.

One area that’s ripe for tying school systems in knots is the way leaders place demands on their people. Most managers struggle with finding the right balance between being too tough with their demands or too easy — and when they overcompensate either way it can cause confusion.

My colleague Robert Schaffer has identified “seven deadly sins” of demand making, all of which are motivated by the desire to avoid confrontations with subordinates. As you read the following descriptions, ask yourself whether you recognize any of them in your own work.

No. 1: Backing away from expectations so that a goal really becomes a wish that people can choose to ignore.

No. 2: Engaging in charades, which conveys that the goal is just an exercise that you have to do for appearances’ sake, but you know it’s not really going to happen.

No. 3: Accepting seesaw trades so that if your people take on one goal, they’ll get relief on another.

No. 4: Setting vague or distant goals by putting the time frame far out into the future.

No. 5: Not establishing consequences, so it’s impossible to differentiate between those who successfully achieve goals and those who do not.

No. 6: Setting too many goals, which allows subordinates to pick and choose the goals they either want or find easiest to meet, but not necessarily the ones that are most important.

No. 7: Allowing deflection to preparations and studies, which delays the moment of commitment to a real goal.

Enduring Goals
All managers are “demand sinners” at various times, often without realizing what they are doing. The key to becoming more effective is to realize that most people actually want to be challenged and stretched, and that setting tough and clear goals and sticking to them may be the best way to develop people — and to get things done.

The experiences of Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, president of the nonprofit Say Yes to Education Foundation, and Eugene (Gene) Chasin, the foundation’s senior vice president and a former superintendent in Bolton, Mass., are a good illustration of how more forceful and sustained demand making can make a difference.

Say Yes was founded 23 years ago by businessman George Weiss when he made a promise to a group of 112 economically disadvantaged children from one of Philadelphia’s toughest neighborhoods that, for those who do make it through high school, he would pay for their college educations. In the years since, Say Yes has expanded this promise by establishing chapters in Harlem, N.Y.; Hartford, Conn.; Cambridge, Mass.; and Philadelphia. It also is engaged in a large-scale, postsecondary promise strategy for the entire school district in Syracuse, N.Y.

To help students realize the promise of a college education, Say Yes uses a comprehensive model that addresses the four risk areas that affect postsecondary readiness — academic, social-emotional, health and wellness, and financial. To translate this theory into action, Say Yes assigns a three-person multidisciplinary team consisting of a social worker, a learning specialist and a program coordinator to focus on a targeted group of students (usually a class). This team then collaborates with teachers, administrators, parents, health professionals and others in the community to do whatever is necessary to improve learning performance.

All of this, of course, sounds good on paper. But making it happen is another story, and for the five Say Yes teams working in Harlem, progress was much slower than needed. Although the individual Say Yes team members were working incredibly hard, somehow their efforts did not add up to adequate results in the classroom. And when Schmitt-Carey and Chasin tried to push them to do more, they heard many of the deadly sin responses above.

For example, one team said essentially this: “Sure, we can spend more time on the after-school program, but we’ll have to work a lot less with parents.” And another team pushed back by saying Say Yes didn’t understand the depth of the problems and much more time was needed before they could see results.

Joint Pursuits
As Schmitt-Carey and Chasin heard more of these responses, they realized the Say Yes teams weren’t really operating as teams, but were instead doing individual tasks with the belief they would all somehow fit together. But they didn’t have a compelling joint goal to work on together because no one had insisted on one. That was Chasin’s and Schmitt-Carey’s responsibility.

So, with that insight, they tried a new approach. They asked each Harlem Say Yes team to come back to them with one clear results-goal that could be achieved in 100 days as a team. And unlike past requests, it was made clear that coming up with this goal and executing against it were non-negotiable.

Once the gauntlet was laid down in this way, the teams not only responded positively but actually raised their games in creative ways. For example, the goal set by the P.S. 182 team, which focused on a group of Harlem 4th graders, seemed like an impossible stretch — to help 85 percent of the 26 students who were at or below grade level to move up at least one reading level in 100 days.

The team had a number of running hypotheses as to how they might accomplish this goal and immediately set forth experimenting with different interventions to achieve it. Their measures included improving their tag teaming; increasing inclusiveness of staff in areas of parent/teacher conferences, student assessments and evaluation reviews; creating a more balanced delivery of ideas, assignments and follow-through to confirm the team was always on the same page; and working with parents in new ways to better support the needs of their children at home.

Higher Confidence
The results were remarkable. Of the 26 target students, nine increased their reading by one level, 15 by two levels and two more students by three levels. Qualitatively, some students demonstrated a deeper interest in their academic achievements and higher self-esteem, and they became more pro-active about approaching the Say Yes staff about their needs.

But it wasn’t just the students who showed improvements. The Say Yes staff reported that their own skill sets were strengthened in better understanding the academic needs of the students, and they felt a higher level of confidence in knowing how to tackle tough issues.

Meanwhile, the parents became more pro-active in supporting their children at home. In fact, some parents started attending English as a second language classes and family literacy workshops and increased their use of services in community-based organizations during the 100 days. As one team member stated: “Focusing on one goal and doing it well as opposed to having several goals with minimal outcomes has been a significant lesson learned for us.”

These results were not confined to just one school. Similar efforts in the four other Say Yes elementary schools in Harlem produced equally positive outcomes. Since then, subsequent waves of 100-day projects have reinforced much more effective ways of working and serve as opportunities for Schmitt-Carey, Chasin and their management team to drive improvement.

For Schmitt-Carey and Chasin, however, the lesson was clear and simple: Demanding better results in a clear and compelling way — and insisting staff members work together to achieve them — brings out the best in people. It’s a lesson every manager should take to heart.

Ron Ashkenas is a managing partner of Robert H. Schaffer & Associates in Stamford, Conn., and author of Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done (Harvard Business Press). E-mail: ron@rhsa.com