Prior to the digital revolution, concepts such as soft skills and emotional intelligence (EQ) were seldom pushed to the forefront of the evaluation criteria in hiring. Emotional intelligence, although introduced around 1964, didn’t actually come into vogue until 2004. Until then, perhaps coinciding with the explosive growth of digital communications, it was fairly well presumed that most people had emotional intelligence by dint of, well, being people who interacted with other people. Certainly, machines have streamlined the ways we connect with others through instant messaging, text, and social media. However, they’ve also helped us envision ways of not communicating through the same processes. From answering machines to chatbots, the evolution of communications technology bears a sense of irony when you consider all the ways we can now avoid directly talking to our peers. So how do we overcome these inherent obstacles, especially in managed services programs where communication is critical but hiring managers enforce no-contact rules with suppliers? We have a few ideas.
Little Things Add Up: How Micromoves Shape Our Interactions
In a May 2019 article for Harvard Business Review, Kerry Roberts Gibson and Beth Schinoff explored how little things can create big ripples that affect our work relationships. With the expediency of digital communications, we lose the body language and vocal context cues that once helped us interpret the underlying sentiment of a statement. That’s become increasingly more difficult as we stare down at formerly innocuous phrases like “Talk later” and begin to question the nature of the message. Paranoia comes as we cast our minds to confusing scenarios. Am I in trouble, one may wonder? Am I getting a promotion? Is this merely a dismissal, a way to say that the other party doesn’t really want to talk at all?
What we gain in the performance enhancements of digital dialogs we sometimes lose in the absence of presence. Verbal and non-verbal cues help us establish motive, intent, attitude, and meaning during face-to-face or voice conversations. However, as they say, there’s no tone to an email or text. So, we substitute these traits with emojis. But they too are equally misleading when devoid of context. Let's say a person sends me a winky face blowing a kiss. Is this a sarcastic send off, an awkward romantic gesture, a mistake, or some mystery I have yet to unravel? All these “little things,” according to Gibson and Schinoff, add up.
Richard Lazarus’ classic book “Psychological Stress and the Coping Process” is considered a monumental study. Dr. Lazarus and Dr. Susan Folkman lay out a detailed theory of psychological stress, building on the concepts of cognitive appraisal and coping. These themes are particularly relevant to the nature of collaboration.
Our own evolution, despite countless gains, has also thrown some obstacles in our path. Human beings have been wired to assess situations in a binary way: they are “good” or “bad.” This rather absolute way of evaluating situations seems limiting, but it has allowed us to act on threats or opportunities. It’s the impetus behind the flight-or-fight decision. Similarly, though, we tend to extend these same behaviors to relationships with others. We remain on “either-or” terms with colleagues—conversations are typically regarded as good or bad.
“The problem is,” Gibson and Schinoff declare, “there are many types of work relationships — good, bad, and everything in between. A large body of research not only confirms this but shows that individual relationships often include a mix of both positive and negative aspects.”
“If you look closely,” they continue, “you’ll see that coworker relationships are actually made up of a series of ‘micromoves’ — small actions or behaviors that seem inconsequential in the moment but affect how we relate to one another. Micromoves are like the steps that characterize a dance. You take a step, and then your coworker takes a step. Each step, or micromove, can change the direction of the relationship. A small act of gratitude or compassion — like saying ‘thank you’ when someone holds a door open or being understanding when someone is late for a meeting — can bring people together and help build long-term trust, researchers suggest.”
Conversely, something as mundane as a delayed response “can create tension and negative feelings that may linger a long time.” There are a few steps to master in the dance of micromoves, and the article’s authors give us some insight.
- Understand your co-workers’ points-of-view, or try to sympathize with their perspectives by imagining your reaction to the same predicament.
- Recognize that micromoves are not always intentional—sometimes our behaviors have influenced them.
- Understand your part in the situation.
- Document the issues and determine ways to correct course.
Talk to Me, Don’t Talk to Me
David Bowie’s 1980 hit “Fashion” is an intriguing song. The musically upbeat and jaunty dance tune is punctuated with harsh, mechanical guitar riffs and detached, off-putting lyrics: “Listen to me - don't listen to me / Talk to me - don't talk to me / Dance with me - don't dance with me, no / Beep-beep.”
Bowie was exploring the banality, conflicting motives, malaise, and what he called the “fascist” conformity to style of the disco scene. In many ways, he was illustrating how the micromoves of the dance-hall days affected interpersonal relationships. Our micromoves in the workplace somewhat recall this familiar trope. Talk to me, don’t talk to me. Partner with me, don’t partner with me. Track these metrics, don’t track these metrics, no. Beep-beep.
In an MSP program, at least from the supplier point-of-view, contradictions pop up regularly. Rules change, goal posts move, performance standards shift, and it’s difficult to tell why. Communication is emphasized as the holy grail of success, but communications are not end-to-end. Between the hiring organization and the providers of talent is the MSP, which must manage interactions in the middle. In this dance, the hiring managers may be performing a tango while the suppliers are mistakenly responding with waltz steps. The MSP, as accidental choreographer, is stuck with interpreting a routine composed heavily of micromoves.
No-contact policies have unintentionally left some suppliers feeling alienated. In response, they may try to circumvent the MSP to barter directly with hiring managers. They may shoot the messenger and blame the MSP, not understanding that the client has requested the no-contact solution design.
Enforcing a no-touch policy helps MSPs drive consistency, develop compliance standards, create reporting metrics, centralize activities, define duties, and bolster rapport with the hiring managers. Previously overwhelmed client teams can reclaim a sense of focus when communications are consolidated through a single point-of-contact that can serve as the arbiter for suppliers and contingent talent.
But today’s MSP programs have matured beyond the transactional. They have moved into the stage of strategy, growth, and innovation. As these changes unfold, the no-contact policy becomes harder to maintain. The MSP can never completely replace hiring managers in describing precisely what is desired, expected, and planned for the program. The VMS can never serve as a perfect substitute for direct conversations about negotiations, strategic discussions, and requests for clarification.
For the partnership to thrive, MSPs must implement proactive and fluid ways to manage micromoves so that everyone on the floor knows the dance and stays in sync, even if some of the steps are improvised.
Choreographing Micromoves into a Ballet
Communicate the Future Instead of Revisiting the Past
MSP program managers can establish meaningful yet controlled access to hiring managers without direct contact. One effective concept is restructuring recurring supplier forums and business reviews. That means looking at meetings like QBRs as strategy discussions and performance sessions, not just a recap of metrics.
- Design the forum to be a communications event with the purpose of conveying clear messages about business strategies, procurement needs, future directions, continuous improvement recommendations, innovations, and goal attainment.
- Clearly define the client’s cascading strategies, program drivers, vision, changing objectives, new missions or directions, and forecasts.
- Offer your vision for uniting all teams to work toward common ends.
- Review lessons learned, implement ongoing parameters for success, consider trends, and share evolving best practices.
- Concentrate on change management with every new development, program iteration, or project.
- Develop a mutually achievable and beneficial roadmap for innovation initiatives, strategies, management processes, and performance enhancements.
- Ask key client representatives and stakeholders to relay their views, even if in a pre-recorded video, then document and act on the suppliers’ feedback. A simple survey in this case could do wonders, especially if direct conversations can’t take place.
MSPs can further enrich communication channels through knowledge bases, information sharing tools, and corporate messaging systems like Slack.
Make Adoption a Priority Over Delegation
The secret to establishing trust and productivity with suppliers springs from clear communication. Encouraging open dialog with suppliers throughout the life of the engagement will help foster rising levels of confidence and loyalty in no-contact environments.
- Promote as impartial a model as possible. Vendor neutrality emphasizes performance, removes intimations of favoritism, levels the playing field, and generates healthy competition and alignment, as all players are learning one another’s capabilities and strengths. Position job order distribution decisions as opportunities for suppliers to collaborate rather than just compete. Two vendors with niche capabilities may be able to join forces to place roles outside their core capabilities. This is already happening behind the scenes when MSPs determine how to tier or distribute requisitions, but illuminating the process may help suppliers see the benefit instead of a perceived disregard.
- Allow new suppliers to meet with client stakeholders to address all mutual concerns and expectations at the onset of their participation. This initially bypasses the no-contact rule, but the effort is worthwhile. One personal meeting followed by the other communication strategies we’ve discussed will go a long way toward adoption without taxing the hiring managers indefinitely.
- Be transparent with terms and conditions, performance metrics, SLAs, pay rates, markups, conversion processes, payment schedules, and all other aspects of the program.
- Develop ongoing development and training programs for suppliers. These may cover program policies, VMS usage, support options, issue resolution procedures, educational libraries, access to self-support resources like knowledge bases, and more.
- Commit to supplier adoption upfront. Articulate the benefits the program and show suppliers the long-term advantages they can enjoy: reduced administrative burdens, access to other opportunities with different clients, upcoming projects, use of automated systems they can’t afford on their own, etc.
In an MSP program, client satisfaction is ultimately tied to the productivity and satisfaction of the staffing suppliers who are providing the labor needed to drive innovation, goals, and performance. Staffing firms can’t deliver if they don’t understand the deliverables. They also can’t realize a sense of peace and satisfaction when uninterpreted micromoves dominate the dance. Throughout history, humans have expressed themselves non-vocally. Many famous dances involve minimal contact, and yet the dancers always appear in step. This is because the absence of touch is known and planned. The performers understand the form, structure, essential movements, and expected outcomes. Orchestrating a well-received no-contact MSP program may require a bit of direction and choreography, but a standing ovation won’t be far behind.