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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: A Lesson From the Maya

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Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.

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Kerrying On

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Today’s thought comes by way of my neighbor Dr. Alan Christensen, a professor of Maya history and language. At one point in his life he had been a dentist, but he tired of the “grind” and went back to school to study his first love—the Maya. It is this part of his life that I find most fascinating.

For those of you who don’t have the benefit of living close to someone who knows more about the Maya than you and I know about our hometowns, let me share a fact or two. The Maya are the indigenous people still living in Mesoamerica. Over six million of them make their homes in a region that runs from the Yucatan peninsula down through Central America. Around four thousand years ago the Maya developed astronomy, a calendrical system, and hieroglyphic writing. In fact, they developed one of only five phonetic writing systems known to the world. During their golden age, the Maya were more advanced than almost all of the civilizations of their time.

The story that caught my attention goes back a few years to when Dr. Christensen was helping create a Maya dictionary. One evening as he closed up his work in the mountains of Guatemala, he realized that he needed to descend to his base camp before it grew too dark. This was a dangerous area known for, among other things, packs of wild dogs that could bring your life to a gruesome end. As Dr. Christensen hurried along an animal trail down the mountain side he stumbled upon a small Maya village. It consisted of a few huts surrounding a central courtyard. In front of one of the huts stood a bench. This would be the home of the village chief. Seated on the bench were most of the men from the village, engaged in casual conversation.

Alan, of course, was anxious to talk with the gentlemen about how to get to his camp before something bad happened to him. He slowly approached the bench and, in his best Mayan, introduced himself. The village elders, in turn, introduced themselves. With the Maya, introductions to outsiders are designed to inform people of each others’ background. Alan introduced himself, where he was from, and what he was doing. He then spoke of his father and mother and where they were from what they did—back through the generations, as far as he could remember. Each of the village elders did the same. This introduction took more than an hour as the sun continued to set and the dangers increased.

When I asked Alan why he didn’t just blurt out his question so he could quickly move on, he explained that it was inconceivable to do so. You couldn’t talk without following the introduction ritual. To the Maya it was beyond the pale to converse with someone without knowing his or her heritage. I had experienced the shorter version of this ritual while living in Brazil. You would never talk to a Brazilian without first greeting him or her and then asking about the family—”y a família?” To leave out the family would be inconsiderate and uncouth. The Maya took it a step further. You had to earn the right to talk to new acquaintances by first familiarizing each other with your entire family history. How could you possible consider discussing anything until you knew something about one another?

Now for the business connection. In addition to the skills taught in our book Crucial Conversations, my partners and I are polishing some new material that deals with the special subset of conversations where others have failed to live up to a promise. More specifically, this new material addresses the questions, “What do you say to someone who has let you down? And how do you say it in a way that solves the problem without hurting the relationship?” Let me suggest that many problem-solving discussions, no matter how well done, go poorly because the existing relationship between the parties is shallow and tortured. It’s hard to talk about performance gaps when you have no relationship with the other person save for the occasional problem-solving discussion.

For instance, a person walks up to you and asks: “Do you have a second?” and the hair stands up on the back of your neck because you know that this is going to be about something you didn’t do or didn’t do right. You don’t ever hear from this person unless something has gone wrong. The Maya won’t even exchange simple pleasantries until they share histories. We, on the other hand, sometimes step up to near strangers and take them to task. Talk about your cultural differences.

Let’s take our cue from the Maya—as well as the best leaders we’ve studied over the years. Get to know people—certainly the people who report to you. This sounds almost trivial but it needs to be said. Developing a genuine relationship makes a huge difference in your ability to talk to others about problems. In fact, three separate studies conducted by my colleagues at VitalSmarts revealed that the single best predictor of satisfaction with supervision is frequency of interaction. If you don’t interact very often and you’re the boss, people don’t like it. With time and distance, others come to mistrust you. On the other hand, meet and talk often, and satisfaction improves.

Unfortunately, it’s getting increasingly difficult to interact. Most of us are pressed for time. Many of us work in “virtual” teams. We rely heavily on electronic connections such as voicemail and e-mail. We’re either out of our office or plugged into something electronic or staring at a computer. Genuine human interaction is becoming much harder to come by. In some companies, casual conversation is growing extinct.

So, go out of your way to create face-to-face interactions. And when you do interact, feel free to let down your business persona and connect at a personal level. Get to know others as people before you know them as employees. This may sound counterintuitive, but the very first leadership study I ever conducted revealed something rather astonishing. When those who were viewed by senior managers as the company’s top performers were kind enough to show me around their work area, they introduced me to their direct reports. They bragged about them. They shared interesting tidbits about their hobbies, work expertise, and children. “Kelvin’s son is at the Naval Academy.” They had obviously talked about a whole host of topics and developed a personal relationship. Poor performers, in contrast, walked around their work areas and routinely showed me the machines and products. They’d often walk right past their people as if they weren’t even there.

Now, back to problem solving. If you don’t interact with others very often, and if you don’t talk casually and personably when you do, you typically don’t have enough of a bank account to draw upon when talking about problems. When you do confront others, they’ll only hear your position; they’ll never see you, the person. Every interaction will be strained and tainted with suspicion and resistance.

As far as your family is concerned, if you don’t take a break from your busy schedules and take your teenage daughter to lunch or a ball game or movie—with no purpose other than hanging out together—your ability to have a broader influence by holding crucial conversations becomes severely limited. In fact, when it comes to friends and loved ones (probably coworkers as well), I’m willing to postulate that each relationship has a tipping point. I’m not sure where it is, but I’m relatively certain about what it is.

Here’s what I have in mind. When the problem-solving discussions you have with your teenagers or other loved ones reach a certain percentage of your total interactions (say over half), your relationship changes. You move from father or mother or friend to gatekeeper or guard. All conversations are now suspect, no matter your intentions. You start to talk about something pleasant—but the other person is waiting for the other shoe to drop. The chemistry changes. Your relationship changes. You’ve passed the tipping point.

I have a friend who traveled almost every week of his career. He’d come home on Friday evenings tired and upset. He had worked hard and long and wanted a certain kind of home to be awaiting him. He wanted the home he had grown up viewing on TV in the 50s where mom and kids awaited his arrival in perfect order and peaceful bliss. But when he came home the house was never clean enough for him. The kids were never well behaved enough. He shared his concerns with me. He didn’t know where to turn. He didn’t like being so unhappy.

Later I learned from my wife that his wife and kids had completely discounted him. All week long they marched to the beat of their own drummer—one that was much less demanding and far more joyful. And then on Friday afternoons they would prepare for the assault of the curmudgeon. They would run around and straighten things while they bad-mouthed the ogre who was soon to cross the threshold. No longer was he a part of the “team.” No longer did he wield much influence. He had been reduced to a shallow caricature and he didn’t even know it.

Was this terrible reaction the result of his standards which were too high or unrealistic? Maybe. My bet is that it was due to something else. He had passed the tipping point. He didn’t have enough casual time where he laughed and played and even acted silly. He didn’t have enough hanging-out time. And he was certainly far too stingy with his praise. By becoming the self-appointed person in charge of holding the weak accountable, he had traded a relationship for a stewardship. He passed the tipping point and tried to run a police state where he was the keeper of all that was good and sacred and everyone else was the enemy.

I’ve seen the corporate version of this issue dozens of times. The most common example occurs every time a fairly highly placed leader from headquarters or the district offices makes a monthly or quarterly inspection of a plant or branch office. When senior managers use these visits solely to sniff out problems, offer unsolicited advice, and find and punish the guilty, it’s not long until they are resented, vilified, and discounted.

Local leaders typically deal with routine and painful visits in predictable ways. They pay little or no heed to the visiting dignitaries’ advice, bad-mouth their deplorable leadership style, assign them derisive nicknames, and otherwise show them enormous disrespect. You can’t routinely walk into a place, pile on the criticism, let the on-site folks know that you’re swifter, smarter, and better, and expect to have a relationship—or much of an effect, for that matter. When your visits turn genuine inquiry into inquisition, you haven’t merely passed the tipping point—you’ve reached the point of no return.

Granted, there are times when the person you’re dealing with is continually doing the wrong thing. You have to talk about a lot of unpleasant issues. It’s your responsibility. Nevertheless, you still have to worry about the tipping point. The more problems the person creates, the more you need to meet under different and healthier circumstances and the more you’ll have to choose your battles carefully. Otherwise, prepare to pay the price.

Now, I realize that the idea of a relationship tipping point is a bit extreme, but somehow it feels right. And I don’t want to lose my less audacious and more applicable point here—the one Dr. Christensen’s visit to a Maya village so aptly taught me. All discussions are made richer when they’re between two people who know something about each other beyond their titles. Problem-solving discussions are far more effective when you’ve taken time to create a social bank account. Maybe you don’t have to know the other person’s life history, but knowing more than his or her name and the problem that has brought you face-to-face can go a long way toward setting a healthy problem-solving climate.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more