Crucial Conversations QA

Chaotic Boss

Dear Crucial Skills,

After a year and a half working with a new boss, I cannot get past the pure chaos in which decisions are made. This really came home to me this last week while we were on the road and the constant changes in the schedule and lack of planning made our team look unprofessional.

The person on the team who had planned everything with the boss worked hard to keep it from happening, but that person also found the boss difficult to make decisions with—even shopping for supplies turned into nightmare trips that lasted twice as long as necessary and left our budget and our schedule in shambles. I know enough to be glad not everyone has the same faults and she has some lovely qualities, however…

What can we do to keep routine decisions with the boss from turning into chaos?

Concerned about Chaos

Dear Concerned,

It seems like you’ve got this pegged. You’ve identified the right person, the issues, and the conversation you need to have. Before I offer some advice, I’ll frame the issue to illustrate how some important pieces fit together.

Your challenge is like challenges faced by many of our readers, in multiple ways. First, this problem is tough because you need to talk to someone more powerful—your boss. We know that it is tough to talk to some bosses. The same challenge is faced by people needing to talk to a parent, or an in-law, or someone who is more senior, or more experienced, or more technical. The question is: how can we bring up this subject and have the outcome be positive? Second, there is a pattern. The problem has occurred in the past, multiple times even. Third, there are serious consequences. What makes it even more problematic is that the other person doesn’t seem to notice, or worse, to care.

When these three conditions exist, most people shy away from holding the conversation. Or they endure it until they act it out—through avoidance or gossip.

So what are some approaches that can help with situations like this?

First, start with heart. Some would get so annoyed with this that what they want is to have the boss stop, at any cost. So they explode, gush out their frustration, and hope for improvements. These people want a fix that gets rid of their problem—now. That comes across as selfish and short-term. If they got their motives clearer, if they focused on what they REALLY want for themselves, for colleagues, for the boss, and for relationships, they’d be more likely to take an approach that the boss saw as mutual and long-term rather than selfish and short-term. In this particular case, I think your motive is right; so you need to figure out what to say and how to say it. To help you get to more empathic approaches, consider asking the “humanizing question”: why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do this? What is your boss really trying to accomplish? Why would he or she make changes like this? What is his or her purpose? What bigger purposes are important here?

Next, consider the specific conversation you need to have. It seems that your conversation is not really about supplies and shopping; it’s about how we stay on schedule and keep to our budget. The question is: How can we make commitments that will help us do this and then talk to each other so that when there’s the risk of failure, we can catch it early and work together to fix it? I think that conversation is one that most bosses are willing to have. His or her specific behavior that caused the most recent problem can be added to this conversation in a way that is safe. For example, “During the last conference you went shopping and that caused the budget to go over. Can we talk about why that happened and what we could do next time to talk it over so that our schedule and budget are kept in tact?”

Remember, holding a crucial conversation is about preparing yourself well—your heart and your content—and then sharing, exploring, and responding. This keeps you agile and caring and attentive. There are only several options for possible outcomes: Your boss can agree; in this case you move to action. She can disagree; in this case you need to listen to her reasons—it’s possible that she can add meaning you hadn’t considered, and then you can move to action understanding all of the information now available. Your boss can get emotional; if this happens, you can step out of the content and make it safe using your Crucial Conversations skills. Finally, you can get emotional; if you do, you can catch yourself, ask for a time to come back and finish holding the conversation later, and then try again.

All of these alternatives are better than doing nothing. And all of the alternatives can be responded to well if you use your dialogue skills.

In conclusion, give the boss a break and bring up the topic in a safe way. You’ll be glad you did.

Best wishes,

Crucial Conversations QA

Dealing with Criticism

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’d like some help on receiving criticism. My problem is that there is one executive in my organization who finds fault with my work and I find myself immediately on the defensive. I am intimidated by her confrontational style. I do not report to her, but she has taken several opportunities to critique my performance. Sometimes I would like to say “don’t shoot the messenger,” “I didn’t create the timeline,” or “it’s not my fault that your VP doesn’t share information with you,” but I also want to learn to buck it up.

Any ideas on how not to turn into the Tasmanian Devil or the Doe in the Headlights?

Ready to throw in the towel

Dear Ready,

Thanks for your thoughtful question. You’re obviously tortured with a problem many of us face and, like you, most of us wonder how much of the problem we ourselves are causing versus how much is due to the other person’s style. It’s hard to be objective when you’re in the middle of the issue and up to your neck in criticism to boot.

Let me go out on a limb here. From the way you’ve phrased the issue, my guess is that the other person is largely responsible for your negative feelings. Your willingness to learn as well as your tentative tone suggest to me that you’ve bent over backward to ensure that you aren’t acting defensive or hostile. Nobody’s perfect, but let’s assume for the purposes of this response that you’re pretty close. The other person actually acts in ways that lead you to suggest that she is “confrontive” and “intimidating.” (If you have a close confidant who watches the two of you interact, he or she will be able to give you a more objective viewpoint.)

When it comes to dealing with the other person, you have three choices: You can cope–that is, say nothing about the problem and legitimately let it go; you can carp–complain endlessly to friends and family but never really do anything; or you can confront the issue–step up to it and deal with it honestly and professionally. You don’t seem like a complainer and I think you’re tired of coping, so let’s take a look at a couple of issues you may want to address as you talk to the other person.

First, do you want to set up a meeting and talk about the overall pattern, or do you wait for something to happen again and then deal with the single instance? The more direct approach is to deal with the pattern, but it’s also riskier. If you say it’s been building for a while or been happening a lot, it raises the stakes. If the person is in a position of power, I’d probably deal with the next instance.

Second, what are the other person’s actual behaviors–those that have you bugged? You concluded that she is confrontational and intimidating. That tells me what you think, but not what she actually does. You probably shared these conclusions because such emotional terms make up sort of a social shorthand, but you’ll have to describe the actual behaviors to the other person if you expect her to know what she’s currently doing versus what you’d like her to do. The rule here is that the other person should immediately know what he or she is doing. You focus on behavior, not conclusions. Don’t describe more than a couple of behaviors that you’d like to see change. Anything more will feel like you’re piling it on. Once you’ve started the conversation and have the other person’s undivided attention, fight your desire to dump all your grievances out at once.

Third, with a person in a position of authority, you may want to ask for permission to hold a discussion where you’re giving her feedback. (It’s not exactly in your job description.) To do so, make it safe by sharing common ground. “I wonder if we could talk about something that I think would help us work together better.”

Fourth, you’ll want to find a way to soften the blow by using carefully chosen words. One of your biggest tools for doing this lies in your ability to separate intentions from outcome. This sounds something like this: “I’m don’t think you’re intending this, but on several occasions it’s felt to me as if you’re critiquing me for simply following orders or doing my best to follow a policy. You suggested that my plan was ‘stupid,’ when it wasn’t even my plan.” Note how different this sounds from: “Hey, I was just following orders!” or “Don’t shoot the messenger!” Both expressions contain a lot of hidden, unhealthy meaning. Instead try: “This is sort of hard for me. I’m doing my best to pass on what I’ve been told and I can see that it’s causing people grief. I’m wondering what I can do to ensure that the message gets heard without causing such a stir.”

When you legitimately seek feedback as opposed to giving others unsolicited feedback, it turns the tables. Instead of making others defensive (“What, I can’t have an opinion?!”) it helps them see the effects of their behavior without you sharing ugly conclusions or even bringing their behavior into question. More often than not, when you point out the spot they’re putting you in, others reflect on what they’ve just done and you can move to a healthier discussion of what you’d prefer to see in the future.

This tentative approach doesn’t mean that you should never talk about what others are doing, that’s why I suggested that you need to identify the other person’s behaviors. Eventually you may want to do just that. However, if the stakes are high, your power base is low, and you want to broach the issue with the least amount of risk, start with you, not the other person. Then transition to the full interaction, including exactly what the other person has said and done.

In any case, think out what you want to do and say, practice the interaction in your mind, pick your moment, and good luck with your crucial conversation.