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December 11, 2023 | 6 Mins Read

Q&A: Manage Promises, Not People

December 11, 2023 | 6 Mins Read

Q&A: Manage Promises, Not People


By Sarah Nicastro, Creator, Future of Field Service

We have talked to a lot of different management consultants over the past several years about ways our audience may be able to improve leadership effectiveness, their management style and team interactions. Among these conversations, trust and open communication are always key considerations for improving team interactions.

Eric Papp is a management consultant, trainer and motivational speaker based in Florida, who has written a number of books on effective management approaches. He speaks often at industry conferences, including the recent Mechanical Service Contractors of America conference in October. His latest book, Manage Promises, Not People : How To Create A Self-Managing Team, is focused on trust building that can help teams be more effective. I spoke to him recently about how some of these principles can be applied in field service organizations, particularly since so much of what service does is fulfilling promises – not just the promise of doing your best work within a field service team, but also the promises companies make to their clients in their service agreements.

Can you explain the concept of promises in the context of the workplace?

Promises in the context of work are what an employee would tell their manager. So for example, the employee promises they will be at work at 9 a.m. What happens if they are late? The manager sees a potential conflict. Do I let it go? What you can say is, “You showed up at 9:20. Do you know what impact that had on me as a manager? I had to call someone in, or we had to be at Ms. Johnson’s house at 10 and we didn’t make it.” Then you set future expectations. Will you send me a text if you are running late? You help them raise their awareness level.

It’s the same thing on a field service job. The technician goes out and takes care of the problem, but the customer calls and says they left mud tracks throughout the house and didn't put their booties on. What is going on? You don’t want to make the employee wrong, but you want to elevate their level of power. There are always gaps between what people say and what they do. Managing the promise instead of the person helps you identify those gaps, get better at it, and as a manager you should look in the mirror and recognize when you do it, and then come from a place of humility and growth. There has to be a level of trust.

In field service, employees frequently work remotely, in some cases do not physically see their managers more than once every week or two. What are some of the challenges that remote work places on this way of trust building?

This is why it’s so important to manage the promise and not the person. If you don't see someone for a whole week, and they are on their own, it’s more crucial. You want to have that level of trust that they are doing what they say they are doing. 

In the book, you make some points about overpromising. In our industry, that is often more of a management or corporate-level problem when setting terms with a client about service that will be delivered. The field technicians wind up paying a price for that. How can organizations scale back that impulse to over-promise just to win business?

You all have to be on the same page. If management over promises, the technician has to do their best to fulfill that promise. Then it’s up to them to have that conversation with a manager, so they know what you ran into that made it exponentially more difficult. As a manager, you have to be open to that input.

You see customer trust start to erode when someone comes out to the site and does something completely different than what was promised, or they contradict the promise. That’s when you lose the customer's trust and you don’t get a call back.

You also need to do some reflection. What did I set out to do today, and what percentage of that did I actually accomplish? A lot of people fall into the optimistic fallacy, where we truly underestimate the time and effort something is going to take, and then overestimate our ability to accomplish it. It’s part of being human.

Where are some areas you see a lot of managers can make improvements on ability to lead, rather than just manage, and how the idea of honoring promises can be worked into day-to-day interactions.

Coaching conversations are really important. If you manage promises, that lends itself to better coaching. That is what you are really called to do, even though so few managers are able to do it because they are bogged down with administrative tasks. But your job as a manager is to improve outputs. How do you do that? You look at your employees that are out there doing the work, and figure out how you can best support them. Have meetings with them, and use those coaching conversations to get them to the next level.

You also have talked about the gap between having knowledge and being able to use it effectively. In field service, technology has given us a lot of information about equipment performance and technician activities, but that can lead to micromanagement.

If you are managing a promise, then micromanaging is not happening. You have trust and communication.Sometimes having more information can be paralyzing. I see that in sales, where people think they have to have all the research done before they pick up the phone and do any business development. You should be focusing on the right touch points. You may have data on gas mileage, or break times, but it really comes down to a few key touchpoints. In field service, that may be how many clients did you see, and are they happy with your service? What is your track record for getting called back again by those customers? 

The more information you look at, the more you can get lost in the weeds.

I have spoken to a few consultants and authors about workplace conflict, and I wanted to ask you to discuss healthy versus unhealthy conflict, and why that is important for good management.

Healthy conflict is being able to talk about what matters without people getting offended. We can talk about performance, and not focus on personality. In a lot of organizations, they don’t talk about problems until they are so painful they have to do something. As humans, we are trained that conflict is bad. You have to navigate healthy conflict at work like you’re in a marriage. You don’t see eye to eye on everything, but how you approach those issues and talk abou them can mean the difference between bringing the team together or putting a chink the armor. 

If you don’t address things, that leads to unhealthy conflict and builds resentment. People may harbor these things for years. Conflict makes people uncomfortable. As a manager in a coaching conversation, if you don’t bring up these issues earlier then your team thinks what they are doing is okay. “I’ve been operating this way for months, and you're just now bringing it up?” Things can really fester.

That ties into another point you made in the book about the value of clarity in management.

Clarity is power. If you know what you want, it's much easier to get what you want. As a manager you want to be clear on your standards and not be wishy-washy when communicating them to your employees, or going back on what you said. Having that consistency goes a long way to being effective as a manager, because employees know what the expectations are and what kind of support they are going to get.

Clarity also impacts delegation. There are times when we get inundated with decisions and you can be hesitant. If you aren’t clear on the end result when you are delegating things, you may not get what you were looking for. People who are good at delegation know what they want and can articulate that. Where we run into issues is when we don’t really know the end result we are looking for, and then you can’t communicate it.