Crucial Conversations QA

The Manager’s Guide To (Appropriately) Advocating For Your Team

Dear Joseph,

One of the most important roles I have as a manager is to be sure my people are properly recognized for their contributions. I do that through verbal gratitude, annual reviews, monetary compensation, and at times, career advancement. I feel heartbroken these days because my hands are tied on the last two. I can only offer tiny salary increases and no advancement opportunities. How do I help my people know their work is valued and keep them motivated in this climate? And/or how do I get upper-management to be more generous?

Lean Times

Dear Lean Times,

Your team is lucky to have you as a leader. I can sense the compassion and interest you have for them. Love is the foundation of good leadership. You’ve got that squarely in place.

With that said, many managers misapprehend their basic role. Many unconsciously adopt an agenda of team advocacy. They think their job is to fight for resources and garner rewards for their team. Proximity to their team engenders a sympathy with their people’s needs while distance from other constituencies breeds indifference to abstractions like budget discipline, shareholder returns, and the needs of other faceless managers or employees. Your job becomes fighting for “your” people.

I say this to explain my first point: the basic role of a manager is to advance the interests of the enterprise. This means there are times when your job is to stand tall and tell your team that meager bonuses are the right decision. When you advocate for bigger rewards for your people, it should be because, as you take an enterprise-wide view, you believe this is where those incremental resources should be placed. Companies suffer when managers squabble over capital investment decisions as though their own local needs are all that matter. The result is a budget that reflects politics more than purpose. Organizations thrive when managers offer their specialized team-level perspective in the service of enterprise-focused decisions.

Enough of the sermon. Understanding that your role is to do what’s right by the organization and your team—let me offer some questions you can reflect on as you influence your team’s motivation and ensure they are appropriately compensated.

  1. Are you maximizing other motivations? Decades of research shows the most important work motivators are not financial. Don’t get me wrong—money matters. But it matters most when other motivators are missing. Three of the most profound are purpose, connection, and mastery. Are you creatively connecting your team to the larger human purpose of the enterprise? Are you investing in developing satisfying connections of trust and intimacy among team members? Do you support individual team members in creating motivating developmental experiences that give them a sense of increasing mastery? These are some of the basics of motivation.
  2. Do you understand the business? Before you advocate for pay or promotions for your team, be sure you understand the larger scheme of the value your team adds to the enterprise, and the relative contribution your people make. Also, do you understand and sympathize with the larger economic realities your senior leaders are navigating? For example: Are you in a growing market? A shrinking market? If you are a government agency, are your budgets increasing or decreasing? Do you work in a growth area of your organization or a declining/legacy area? Your influence with upper management decreases when your motivations narrow. If it’s all about “your” people—expect resistance. If they believe you have a broader enterprise view, they will be far more open to your arguments.
  3. Is compensation internally fair? Is it externally competitive? Your arguments will be more effective if they are more informed. The two strongest arguments for increases have to do with internal fairness (Are people who make similar contributions also making similar incomes?) and external competitiveness (Is your team’s pay lower than the market you’re recruiting from?). Notice I am NOT suggesting that everyone in similar jobs should be similarly paid. It’s about contribution not job description. You need to factor in not only what skill set someone is using but also how meaningfully it is contributing to the enterprise’s most important challenges.
  4. Can you add more value? The only sustainable compensation principle for organizations is that compensation should follow contribution. It isn’t about tenure, title, rank, or classification. It’s about how important your contribution is to the critical problems the organization faces. You should not ask for more unless you believe your people are not being compensated commensurate with their contribution. And if you do, you need to find a way to persuasively demonstrate this gap. Otherwise, work the other direction: help your team see ways they can increase their contribution in order to bolster the case for increased compensation.
  5. What are the natural consequences of the gap? If compensation is clearly out of whack, the best way to influence upward is to meaningfully illustrate the natural consequences of the current policy. Ask yourself:
    • What problems is the current pay gap creating? What evidence do I have of these problems?
    • If the pay gap persists, what problems do I believe will occur? What evidence do I have that they will actually occur?
    • Which of these problems would upper management care about most?
    • How can I present these problems in a potent way? For example, a hospital pharmacy manager who complained for years about underpaid employees finally got results when he showed the relationship between medication errors and staffing turnover.

Best wishes as you continue to care for your team in a way that honors your larger stewardship.


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Getting Things Done QA

Overcommitted? How To Renegotiate Your To-do List

Dear Justin,

I have a lot to do. Just my standard job responsibilities are more than enough to occupy every minute of my work day, and then some. I’m maxed out, but I hate to turn people down when they ask for my help. So, I end up committing to more work than I really have time to do. I’m just not really sure how to be both productive and helpful. These two qualities seem at odds. Any advice?

Maxed Out

Dear Maxed Out,

Your situation is one everyone can relate to. This predicament rings all too true: I only have 24 hours in a day, but I committed to 30 hours worth of stuff. I can appreciate your intent—you want to be helpful to others—but your good intentions will get you into trouble, if you aren’t careful.

Here are a few tips to consider:

Accept the reality of time. When you and I continue to say “yes” to agreements we don’t have time to complete, we are deceiving ourselves. In subtle ways, we try to trick ourselves into believing we will, somehow, someway, be able to do more than one thing at a time or find 26 hours in our 24-hour day. We all know that’s silly, yet we constantly rationalize making un-keepable commitments with these types of arguments. The good news is you don’t have to. As David Allen says, “Einstein had 24 hours. So did Mother Teresa. So did Bach.” You can accomplish your most important goals and help others in amazing ways with the time you have available to you.

Master the art of renegotiation.

1. You can’t renegotiate agreements you don’t remember making. I’ve spoken about this idea in many of my articles, most especially the one about not keeping stuff in your head. As you may know, David Allen also says, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them®.” It’s tough to know which agreements or to-do’s you need to renegotiate if you don’t have them in front of you. So here is a quick exercise. Sit down for ten minutes and write down, as quickly as you can, every commitment that has your attention—all the stuff weighing on your mind. Write down one item per line on the paper.

Reflect on your list and consider how you feel about those items. Most people feel a little bit better. Why? Maybe because they feel like they have more control over them. Maybe because they can see the next steps needed to complete the items they’ve listed. Maybe because once it’s out of their head, their mind feels clearer. There is often an inverse relationship between how much something is on your mind and how quickly it gets completed. When you get into the habit of writing down all your agreements and seeing the massive lists of things you’ve agreed to, the word “NO” might start feeling more appropriate.

2. Renegotiate with yourself. One of the biggest sources of stress and dissonance comes from not completing commitments we made to ourselves: “I ought to fix that back porch,” “I really want to write a white paper for this product idea I have,” and “I want to take my wife out on a date.” For some, our own desires and values are the largest sources of commitments. When you have too many of these commitments, you can either stress about not being able to get to all of them or you can be better about deciding which ones you’re truly committed to and which ones you’re not. This is where a Someday/Maybe List can be really powerful. The idea here is this: just because you want to say “no” to something right now doesn’t mean you have to say “no” to it forever. Even if you removed it from your list—but deep down inside you still had an interest in doing that thing at some point—your brain won’t let go of it. Your brain will keep reminding you and guilt-tripping you about it. So, you need a place to put items you might want to do but aren’t committed to taking action on right now (because of time, money, circumstance, etc.).

Create a list or a folder called “Someday/Maybe” or “Not Now.” Then, anytime you think of something you want to do, but you know realistically you can’t commit to now or in the near term, drop it into that list. Then, put a reminder on your calendar once a month to review that list. There is no pressure to do anything, but as you review the list, see if there is anything you want to make “current” because you now have the time, money, or circumstance to do it.

3. Renegotiate with others. When you get a commitment you know you don’t have time to complete, it’s time for a renegotiation conversation. This can be a hard one. The reality is there are some commitments you simply can’t say “no” to or renegotiate. If your boss wants you to do something ASAP, you should probably do it. But the key here is finding a way to fully engage with the commitments you make and not feel guilty about the stuff you’re not doing in that moment. The two steps for having a renegotiation conversation are 1) to make your intent really clear and 2) clarify the priority of large projects, not just small actions.

  • Make your intentions really clear. When you begin a renegotiation conversation, your goal is to relay this idea: I am a contributor craving focus, not a complainer craving less. Start by telling the other person your intention, “Hey, Steve, I wanted to chat about assignment XYZ. I want to give this the attention it deserves. Can you help me see how, in terms of priority, this fits with other assignments we’ve talked about?”
  • Projects versus actions. Our tendency is to want to go to our boss (or the person to whom we’ve made commitments) and say, “Look at this massive to-do list I have! I have far too much to do. You’ve got to take some things off my plate.” Complaining about the number of tasks you have will likely not get you much sympathy. Instead, focus the discussion around your projects. By projects, I mean all your big priorities that have multiple moving parts. Talk with the other person about re-prioritizing those. That will give you much greater balance and clarity. Note: One study done by economists and sociologists Neil Gandal, Charles King, and Marshall Van Alstyne at MIT found that a firm’s “all-stars” tend to only work on five projects at once.

You can be both helpful and productive, but not without some key habits to keep it under control. In the end, you also have to take care of yourself. When you commit to far more than you can realistically do, you only create more stress. Being a little nicer to yourself will actually be the best way to help others in the long run.

Good luck!

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Crucial Accountability QA

Dealing with Toxic Gossip at Work

This article was originally published in July of 2013.

Dear Crucial Skills,

One of my main concerns at work is how we talk about each other—the staff lunchroom can be especially toxic. What feels most shocking to me is how our boss is often thrown under the bus.

I am having a hard time thinking of an appropriate comment to make as I feel that listening to these conversations implies my agreement. And I have to admit there have been times when I’ve piped up with a rude wise-crack or two, so I don’t want to seem like I’m above it all. There are times I just avoid the lunchroom and I know others do, too.

What suggestions do you have for responding to wisecracks made behind coworkers’ backs?

Staying In From the Lunch Room

Dear Staying In,

You’ve done a great job of describing a familiar problem. I bet many of us have been in the same situation. We’re joking around in the lunchroom, one-upping each other’s wisecracks, when somehow the topic turns to our boss or maybe to a colleague. We keep on with the jokes and banter, but at some point, it crosses the line from play to poison. As you said, we’re throwing someone under the bus—all in the name of fun.

In these situations, silence isn’t golden. It’s agreement. When we don’t speak up, we show our support for the people doing the badmouthing. We’re helping to throw the person under the bus.

It’s this kind of poisonous conversation that causes bad morale to spread across a team or organization. It begins with a seemingly innocuous joke, which is really the leading edge of an attack. Instead of saying something like, “I see it differently,” others in the conversation remain silent or add to the wisecrack, amplifying the attack.

The group is creating a villain story at someone’s expense, without stopping to question the story’s truth or giving the person a chance to respond. As the story is repeated and grows unchallenged, it becomes full of what the comedian Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness.” It may be several steps away from the facts, but it feels true. And it poisons the workplace.

Why do we do this? Sometimes it’s because we don’t know the person’s true motives and we assume the worst. Jamaicans have a saying, “If you don’t know a man, you’ll invent him.” The implication is that we’ll invent him as an ogre. Few of us know our managers—especially senior leaders—really well. We aren’t privy to their information or motives. And as the saying suggests, we judge them harshly. We don’t give them the benefit of the doubt.

Sometimes these conversations are as simple as failing to give the benefit of the doubt, but there is often more going on. Sometimes your colleague is motivated by jealousy, revenge, fear, or dislike. Regardless of the cause, you need to speak up when you see this inappropriate behavior.

Use CPR to decide what to say. CPR stands for Content, Pattern, and Relationship. CPR can help you think about a problem and decide how to focus your conversation.

Suppose a person at your table says, “Sure, the boss says she’s trying to improve staffing levels, but that’s just to shut us up. What she really means is ‘staphing‘ levels—you know like a staph infection!”

A statement like this may contain issues related to Content, Pattern, and Relationship. As a problem-solver, you can decide which issues are most central to you. You can use CPR to focus on the issues that are closest to the heart of your concerns.

Content: Addressing the content means you focus on the facts in the person’s statement. Focusing on content is usually the simplest and safest way to respond because you aren’t drawing any conclusions beyond what the person has just said. An example of addressing the content would be, “I don’t think she’s trying to shut us up. Why do you think that?” Addressing the content frames the problem as a question of facts. It focuses the discussion toward what your manager said and why your colleague doesn’t believe it.

Pattern: Suppose this comment is just one in a pattern of passive-aggressive comments this group uses to badmouth the boss. You might address this pattern by saying, “I like the way we kid around with each other, but not when we start to throw people under the bus—people who aren’t here to defend themselves.” Addressing the pattern focuses on your colleagues’ inappropriate behavior. It’s a tougher discussion, but it may be closer to the heart of your concern.

Relationship: The long-term impact of these corrosive conversations is the undermining of trust and respect. The relationship with the boss is put at risk. If you feel that people’s comments reveal a rupture in basic trust and respect for your boss, then you might address the relationship itself: “It sounds as if you’re questioning whether you can trust and respect her. Is that right? If that’s your concern, then I think you need to find a way to talk with her and hash it out.” Note that you may decide to have this conversation in private, instead of putting the person on the spot in front of everyone. Again, it’s a tough discussion, but it may be closer to the heart of your concern.

The mistake many problem-solvers make is to focus on content, the simple and safe route, when their true concern involves the pattern or relationship. They address a problem, but it’s not the problem they really care about.

This CPR skill can be used in a wide variety of situations, not just in confronting gossip about your boss. The next time you have a concern, use CPR to decide which part of the concern to address. CPR can help you focus on the heart of your gossip problem.


Kerrying On

The Perfect Amount of Abuse

In the spring of 1964, as I approached my eighteenth birthday, my dad concocted a harebrained scheme (is there any other kind?) to help save money. His plan was to take advantage of our family’s health insurance by having me undergo medical procedures that our carrier would stop paying for—the day I turned eighteen. So, a few months before my eighteenth birthday, Dad put his plan into action. One day he dragged me into the hospital and had my tonsils removed. Two weeks later I was tested for allergies. Following that I had my nose straightened, and so forth.

In addition to providing me with “free medical care,” Dad’s demented scheme led to an experience I remember to this day. As I lay in my hospital bed sleeping off the anesthetic from my nose surgery, I was abruptly awakened by the sound of someone shouting. There, standing next to my bed, was my surgeon—madly cranking a large metal handle and screaming at a nurse.

Shortly following my surgery, the nurse—that is, the young woman who was now being shouted at—lowered my bed to a flat position. Her goal had been to make me more comfortable. When the doctor saw me lying flat on my back (a dangerous position for patients recovering from nose surgery), he verbally attacked the nurse. The scene that followed was positively jaw-dropping.

Until that moment, I’d never seen one adult shriek at another one (not even my own parents). I most certainly had never seen a doctor curse and threaten a nurse. The effect was not good. I feared that the nurse was about to have a breakdown and I felt ashamed for the shrieking surgeon. True, the doctor was watching out for me, and the nurse had, indeed, made a colossal blunder, but all I could think about in the midst of the dreadful verbal attack was that surely there had to be a way to deal with medical errors that didn’t rely on scathing threats and insults.

A decade later, when I finished graduate school and began conducting research in hospitals and other organizations, I quickly learned that the abuse my nose surgeon had so readily demonstrated back in the Sixties was still common, not only in hospitals, but just about everywhere. Crank up the pressure at work, and somebody somewhere starts verbally abusing somebody else—particularly if there’s a power difference between the conflicting parties.

For instance, yesterday I witnessed a verbal attack at a sporting event when a twenty-year-old football player zigged when he should have zagged. Unhappy with the flagrant zigging, one of the coaches grabbed the running back’s face mask and then yanked it hither and thither while yelling full volume into the player’s face. This tirade was acted out in front of thousands of fans while a massive screen above the end zone displayed every moment in living color. Later that day, during a TV interview, that same coach pointed out that the player he had yelled at needed to be reminded of what he was supposed to be doing.

“So,” the coach explained, “I gave the young man a refresher course.” Both the coach and the interviewer chuckled at the remark. I didn’t see the humor.

I am happy to report that, in recent years, healthcare employees (along with most professionals) have made tremendous progress in eliminating verbal abuse from the workplace. HR specialists have worked hard to eradicate all forms of unprofessional treatment. Unfortunately, these improvements often have been achieved with little or no help from the surrounding community. For instance, scores of politicians, celebrities, and, yes, even neighbors, disagree with each other so frequently and with such ferocity that it’s hard to hear the arguments they make over the roar of the methods they employ.

Consider the home. My son once told me that every time he and his buddies visited a certain friend up the street, the teenager’s mother (Martha), would find something to get upset about—and then she’d scream at them until they fled. This came as a surprise to me given that Martha presented such a gentle image in public. As I probed further, my son suggested that a full third of his friends’ parents, when upset, became abusive.

One day, while seated next to Martha at a little league game, the conversation turned to childrearing. Martha casually mentioned that she frequently raised her voice and, to the untrained eye, she might appear mean. However, since she was committed to disciplining her children (in an effort to keep them on the straight-and-narrow) her verbal tirades were the cure to what she called “spineless parenting.” Martha figured that strongly expressing her views (including screeching at, ridiculing, and threatening her children) was exactly what she needed to do to help restore accountability to a generation that was being coddled. From where Martha sat, delivering an occasional dose of verbal abuse was beneficial to everyone concerned.

I guess I see it differently. After decades of interviewing employees about what they most and least admire in their leaders (and coworkers), I’ve learned that the answer generally centers on the topic of verbal abuse. Individuals who shout, threaten, demean, insult, and curse others aren’t admired. They may be feared, or even loathed, but they’re never admired. “Country club” bosses who don’t step up to problems for fear of being accused of being hardnosed or controlling aren’t respected either. They’re criticized for showing no moxie and allowing problems to fester. Who’s left? Individuals who step up to problems and manage to keep their emotions in check (even when they strongly disagree) and who do so in a respectful fashion—these are the people who are regularly singled out as the best person to work for, and with.

You have to be impressed by individuals who routinely take part in highly charged conversations and yet still find a way to remain on topic and respectful. It’s not easy. Homes don’t come staffed with HR departments. The human brain offers no help whatsoever. When facing a perceived threat, the amygdala actually sounds a warning to fight or take flight. A lot of good that does. Perhaps worst of all, we find ourselves surrounded by scores of abusive role models. It’s difficult to conclude that verbally abusing others is abnormal or even unacceptable—given that accomplished citizens, influential leaders, lauded politicians, and Hollywood celebrities verbally attack each other at every turn. Congratulations to individuals who do find ways to remain respectful—even when under fire.

Finally, some advice to those of you who are struggling to find the right approach to take when dealing with individuals you believe might actually need a bit of verbal abuse. Perhaps their misstep was egregious, or they only respond to threats, or they show no remorse. Regardless of why you believe verbal abuse is called for, when considering how much to deliver, consider also this guideline: verbally abuse others exactly as much as you personally like to be abused. It’s the perfect amount.

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Getting Things Done QA

Paper vs. Apps—The Tools in Your GTD® System

Dear David,

I can’t seem to get rid of my paper and pencil system. I love to write down lists, track things on sticky notes, and hoard notebooks and handouts from my meetings. In today’s world of fancy phone apps and calendaring systems, I feel a bit archaic. Am I doing it wrong if I stick to my paper and pencil way of getting things done? It hasn’t let me down yet.

Low-Tech Scribe

Dear Low-Tech,

There is absolutely nothing wrong with your tools, nor with you. As a matter of fact, paper, in many cases for many people, works better than digital media. I know quite a few tech-savvy people who have gone back to using paper-based systems—especially those who have attention issues or are simply too impatient to deal with all the digital “clicks” necessary to input or access reminders in your phone or computer.

Physical tools like pen and paper also give us a kinesthetic experience that many find more satisfying than typing or texting. The touch and feel of pen, pencil, paper, sticky notes, and notebooks does foster a kind of magical quality in our thinking as we use them. And the more attractive our tools, the more functional they will be.

Additionally, a paper planner or notebook, properly used and organized, can actually give you a more comprehensive, quick overview and gestalt of your multi-level commitments than a combination of software applications. I used an elegant notebook organizer for fifteen years, for note-taking, creative thinking, calendar and action reminders, and functional portable reference material. Though I have transitioned to digital tools, I still miss that compact, coordinated, leather-encased tool. Tech has not been able to replicate that for me, in that way, as much as I would like it to.

I did switch to digital for organizing lists and some note taking when the Palm Pilot debuted in the 1990’s. Since then, I’ve primarily stuck to software apps for much of what I need to manage and access. Given the nature of my work, my collaboration with others, and the integration of things like email, calendar, and digital information I can easily cut and paste, high-tech won out as my medium of choice. But it does have its limitations.

I still use pen and paper for capturing random thoughts I’d like to address later (I’ve carried a notepad in my pocket wallet for thirty-five years and I’ll never give it up!). I also always keep a small notepad and pen at my desk. I would find it absurdly inefficient to have to unlock my smartphone to capture a random idea or input. My wife and I maintain a running notecard in the kitchen to remind ourselves of items we need to get at the market.

That said, a paper-based environment of inputs and note-taking can be as ineffective as anything else! I have spent thousands of hours hand-holding sophisticated executives as they plow through the notebooks, sticky-notes, random meeting notes, printed reports, receipts, and scraps of paper that have accumulated and constipated their environments and their heads. If your system is completely paper-based, you still need to apply the rigor it takes to distinguish between simply capturing ideas on paper to clarifying and listing these inputs. If you’ve taken meeting notes or thoughts in a journal or notebook, and haven’t curated them to distinguish what needs to be kept as reference, what requires action to be taken, and what can be simply tossed (and rewritten and reorganized in that way), then the whole situation will be quite pressured and sub-optimal.

As long as you have discrete categories into which to channel your handwritten notes (random inputs, reminders of projects and specific actions to take, reference material, etc.), it can function as a self-management system as well as any other.

Here’s a warning: if you’re avoiding going digital and sticking with your low-tech tools because you’re uncomfortable and unfamiliar with that world, watch out. Our world is becoming increasingly digital. Given your lifestyle and situation, it may not make that much difference to you. Just pay attention to what you need to manage and take care of and what the optimal way to deal with that might be. Don’t stick with what you’re doing because you’re not willing to explore something that might be more effective. But, if you’re sufficiently digitally savvy and decide to stick with a paper-based system, good for you.

Obviously, there is no perfect set of tools—each component has an upside and a downside. There are only excellent ways to use whatever tools you choose to use.

Best of luck,

Crucial Conversations QA

Surviving a Messy Roommate

Dear Joseph,

How do I get my roommates to clean up after themselves? They don’t seem to care about the mess they make and how dirty our house gets. I tried to talk to them about it but any attempt to reform their behavior only lasts a day or two. I end up being the one to have to take responsibility for everyone else’s mess. It drives me nuts. Please help!

Angry Roommate

Dear Angry Roommate,

There are three possible reasons for your roommates’ behavior.

  1. They don’t care about your cleanliness standards as much as you do.
  2. They resent your attempts to cajole them into changing.
  3. All of the above.

Problems in relationships begin anytime you try to “get them to do” something. If your goal is changing someone else’s behavior, your motives are essentially manipulative. You begin to scheme and strategize on covert tactics to achieve your self-centered goal. After a recent lecture, a man approached me excitedly to explain that he now had some great ideas for how to “get my wife to lose weight.” Can you hear the problem?

Please don’t hear this as criticism. Hear it as autobiography. My greatest parenting and leadership failures have come when I have given myself the task of changing another person’s behavior. This goal resulted in feelings of judgment, alienation, and resentment. When I would “succeed” in “changing someone’s behavior,” I rewarded myself with self-deceptive hubris—which inevitably led to future episodes of judgment, alienation, and resentment.

With that said, you are fully within your rights to want a clean apartment. There are two ethical and effective ways to get there:

  1. Explore preferences. Hold a conversation with your roommates to see if there is any mutual dissatisfaction with the status quo. If there is sufficient dissatisfaction to agree on a new system of responsibility and consequences, then you’re home free. If not, then move to #2.
  2. Negotiate. They may not care about having a clean living room, but they may care about having a preferable parking spot, or an evening with the house to themselves, etc. If there is a basis for negotiation, be sure you come to clear expectations and consequences for failure that you and they can live with.

If you’ve tried both exploring and negotiating with little success or progress, then you really only have two options moving forward.

  1. Do it yourself—for yourself. If your roommates don’t care enough to take any additional action, you have the option of cleaning the house the way you want (so long as they don’t mind the smell of Febreze). To take this step, you’ll need to surrender the resentment you feel from their failure to live up to your standards. Let go of the burden of manipulation and pick up the broom or dishrag yourself—for yourself. Don’t hope for appreciation from them—just appreciate the state of things yourself.
  2. Move. The only person whose behavior you can control is you. And nothing makes you feel more like a victim than hanging your happiness on making others change. It absolves you of emotional responsibility as your moods become the product of others’ choices. You trade contentment for resentment. Not a great trade. At the end of the day, if you don’t like how your roommates behave, you’ve got a choice to make. In the aggregate, are the pluses bigger than the minuses? If so, choose to stay—and take responsibility for your choice. If not, move. Take responsibility for your needs not their behavior.

I hope some of these suggestions help you find peace and cleanliness!


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Influencer QA

How to Make Crucial Conversations Part of Your Culture

Dear David,

I work for a global manufacturing company. We are in the process of redefining our workplace culture and recognize that one of the key business behaviors we need to develop, at every level, is the ability to effectively have crucial conversations. What recommendations do you have for creating a workplace ‘movement’ that influences the frequency and effectiveness of crucial conversations?

Looking Forward

Dear Looking,

Your question is one we’ve studied, tracked, and evaluated over many years. The good news is that you can succeed at making the behaviors to “speak up” and “hold others accountable” into organizational norms. The other good news is that, when you do, it has a profoundly positive impact on all aspects of performance.

I’ll describe the approach we use to build these norms.

Begin with a compelling business case.
Work with senior leaders to identify a tangible goal that is undeniable and irresistible, a goal that everyone will unite around. We ask them to select a priority that is important enough to demand at least 20 percent of their time. Then we ask them to make sure the link between “speaking up” and achieving the goal is clear. Below are a few examples:

    • Hospital: Achieve hand hygiene compliance of 95 percent or better. You must speak up whenever you see someone fail to wash his/her hands.
    • Factory: Manage capacity and resource constraints in a way that prevents any delays in deliveries to customers. You must speak up whenever you see a situation that could put a customer delivery at risk.
    • Mine: Eliminate accidents that cause serious injuries and deaths. You must speak up whenever you see unsafe behavior or an unsafe situation.

Having a specific goal for “speaking up” will smoke out two kinds of people: People who don’t want to have to speak up and people who don’t want others to speak up to them. The fact that the goal is compelling, undeniable, and irresistible means leaders can have an on-the-bus or off-the-bus conversation with these resisters.

Socialize the business case. Sometimes the business case is obvious. But usually it’s important to have leaders discuss the case with groups of opinion leaders. Here are some of the questions we have the leaders ask to get the conversations going.

  1. Our Brand: What are we known for? Why do customers come to us, instead of to our competition? What is it about our goods or services that allow us to charge premium pricing? What kinds of failures would put our brand/reputation at risk?
  2. Our Environment: What threats and opportunities does the organization face? What changes in the environment (to customers, technology, competitors, regulations, workforce, etc.) do we need to master?
  3. Our Ability to Execute: What are our organization’s strengths and weaknesses? Strengths: Successful change, positive project execution, organic growth, etc. Weaknesses: Stalled initiatives; areas of stagnant growth; investments that are underperforming; projects that miss budgets, timelines, or specs; imperfect collaboration between units, regions, or functions; customer service issues; etc.

These conversations help leaders explain their business strategy and specific priorities. Below are two examples:

  • Healthcare System: The senior team described their brand as, “A destination health provider that serves a multistate region.” This strategy guided their capital spending: they purchased an insurance company, bought more than a dozen community hospitals, and built a cancer center, heart center, spine center, and children’s hospital. It certainly took more than 20 percent of their time. The CEO described “speaking up” and “universal accountability” as the essential glue that binds everything together.
  • Manufacturing Manager: This leader described her brand as, “We use mass customization to appeal to multiple niche markets.” Her plant needed to deliver personalized products with the cost and scale of mass manufacturing. She developed an incredibly flexible and responsive system where the lynchpins were “speaking up” and “universal accountability.”

Notice how these business cases present Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability as “means to an end” rather than as “ends in and of themselves.” They position these skills as essential, not nice to have.

Ask leaders to lead. It’s tempting for leaders to delegate initiatives to skilled support functions, such as Human Resources or Learning & Development. But norms are set from the top, so leaders need to be more actively involved. Below are three actions we ask leaders to take.

  • Involve both formal and informal leaders. Senior leaders must influence through others. In particular, they need the understanding, commitment, and buy in from two groups: formal leaders and informal leaders. Formal leaders include anyone with supervisory responsibilities; informal leaders include opinion leaders, employees who may not have any formal authority, but have the trust and respect of their peers. Senior leaders need to spend a disproportionate amount of their time with these two groups.
  • Develop an accountability/measurement system that keeps people’s feet to the fire. Senior leaders must hold themselves accountable for results.
  • Build motivation and ability within your chains of command. We ask leaders to lead the influence efforts. That’s why we have them facilitate the discussions that explain the business case. We also ask them to lead (or help lead) any training that’s involved. These investments of time and prestige will convince others of the priority they set on speaking up.

Combine all Six Sources of Influence™.
I don’t have the space here to review the methods taught in our book, Influencer. But I will remind you that initiatives that combine four or more (preferably all six) Sources of Influence are ten times more likely to succeed. As a quick reminder, the Six Sources of Influence are:

  1. Personal Motivation: Will—Is speaking up seen as a moral imperative?
  2. Personal Ability: Skill—Do people have the skills to speak up in the toughest situations?
  3. Social Motivation: Encouragement—Do people’s managers and peers ask and encourage them to speak up?
  4. Social Ability: Support—Do people’s managers and peers support them when they try to speak up?
  5. Structural Motivation: Incentives—Does speaking up affect performance reviews, promotions, pay, etc.?
  6. Structural Ability: Tools—Do people have the opportunities, cues, and other tools they need to speak up?

Make sure all Six Sources of Influence are aligned in your favor, that they all support speaking up. Hope this helps.

Best of luck,

SURVEY: High Potential, Low Performance. What Gives?

We’ve all had team members or direct reports who have the talent, but still fail to perform. We’re looking to measure the “lost potential” managers and colleagues suspect exists within their teams.

Share your perspective in our short, three-minute survey. Thank you for taking the time to participate in our research.

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at