ATD Blog

First Seek Understanding, Then Build Agreements

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Tom and Rena have worked together for three months. Tom manages Rena but has “no time to talk with her.” Tom said, “I find my good intentions to sit down and have a one-on-one regularly get scrapped due to the emergency du jour. My boss always says you must develop your people but he is the biggest time sink in my job. He is disorganized and we all the pay the price. That’s why Rena has not gotten any of my time.”

Actually, that’s not true. Rena loses because Tom has not learned the most fundamental management imperative. You cannot expect people to trust you or give you discretionary effort (the work they do because they want to out of the goodness of the connection between you and them) when there is no human link.

Martine is a senior director in a medium-sized design firm. Even though she has 28 direct reports, Martine meets one-on-one with everyone once per month and together in a cohort meeting once per month. “These two touch points are sufficient for me to know intimately what is going on with everyone. Although it is not as close as I’d like, it does create a foundation of understanding between us.”

What Is Understanding?

I define understanding as:

  • a conscious and intentional building of shared reality 
  • about specific areas of interest or concern 
  • using language we both can comprehend and use effectively.

Understanding starts with an intention to have understanding. Here’s an example. I was consulting to a not-for-profit having troubles delivering on two of its goals: program development and grant generation. When we probed, the problem came down to two staff members who had been wonderful volunteers and dedicated supporters but who did not have the experience or skills required to be full-time staff.
The gap between what was required and their capabilities was vast. The executive director was hesitant to terminate two very popular former volunteers. I suggested she start by developing specific precise measurements of the “gaps.” (Learn more about gap analysis.)

With the gaps clearly defined, she and the staff members could develop a series of SMART (specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and timely) agreements. Then, the executive director could use the agreements as a basis for coaching and work hard at communicating regularly with each of the staff members about their progress in meeting the agreements.


All commitments are a series of agreements that start with cognitive understanding of the specific, metric-based, and time-bound requirements shared using common language.

For example, Fred manages Marge. She runs the customer service section of the general store that sells company wares and treats. At first, Marge did not understand her job includes stocking and restocking products so there is a constant supply with little overstock. Marge’s understanding of her role was to be responsive, friendly, and present at the right times to always meet customer requests and interests. Fred and Marge spent an hour reviewing her position. By the end of their conversation, she understood, at least in words, what her role was in entirety.

However, Marge’s behavior did not change. Fred thought they had agreed she would do the full role not just what she liked most. Upon further investigation, it became apparent that Marge did not have skills or experience in inventory management. She could not make a real agreement to do those parts of the job unless she received training in these specific areas. Marge was motivated and excited to learn and she did. It was painfully slow, but she also was the favorite of the staff delivering goods and services with kindness, good counsel, and smiles.

Here are three tips for developing understanding in any situation.

  1. Seek first to understand before asserting your point of view. I find that if I inquire first and try to learn what the experience and/or perceptions are of the person with whom I am attempting to build understanding, I am more confident about how to begin my side of the conversation.
  2. Start with framing the conversation as an honest attempt to develop understanding. Admit that you don’t understand what you are observing in their actions or attitude. Initiate seeking of understanding by being tentative and interested. Be curious not assertive while clearly asking for better insight into the problem, gap, or action.
  3. Frequently remind the other person that you are both trying to get to a shared understanding that can be a basis for building solid, jointly-developed agreements.
About the Author

Elad Levinson is an expert in applying neuroscience and cognitive sciences to leadership effectiveness, and has more than 40 years’ experience in leadership roles in various organizations. He held several senior management positions at Agilent Technologies, ICANN, and Stanford University. Elad is currently a senior adviser at 4128 Associates, and the head instructor for Praxis You’s Thriving on Change. Be sure to check out Thriving on Change: The Evolving Leader's Toolkit. This is a great resource created by Elad for today's leaders.


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