Crucial Conversations QA

Vague Feedback

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

The director of the agency I work for has decided (after three years) to call us in every month or so to discuss what’s going on in our departments and the agency in general. I’ve had two of these conversations with her. What it turns out to be is, “You’re doing a great job” (no details), then focusing on a “problem.” She tells me what she sees as a problem, tells me what agency policy is, and vaguely tells me how to handle it. She never asks my side of the problem, never asks how I currently handle the issue (exactly the way she says it should be handled!), and leaves me feeling unsupported and on the outside. I’ve been coming up with some ideas for these conversations such as asking her to define certain words she uses to describe me and find out if she means them positively or negatively–it’s often difficult to tell since she has a perpetual negative look on her face and in her tone.


Anxious and Confused

A Dear Anxious,

I’m glad you asked this particular question because it brings up an issue that we’ve explored in some depth. The challenge in this case is: Which problem or problems do you deal with, and how do you start the conversation?

1. Which problem?

This is a classic case of one set of circumstances serving up a variety of problems–all related, and yet distinct and different. Let’s look at the array you mention in your description.

-It’s been three years without feedback.
– Your boss’s choice of words is vague, often leaving you wondering exactly what she’s talking about–with both your problems and successes.
– You’re not sure how she defines certain terms.
– Her tone and look are perpetually negative.
– She fails to involve you in problem solving, providing only her view.
– At the end of the conversation you don’t feel supported.
– She doesn’t recognize that you’re currently solving problems in the way she suggests.

In addition to the issues you allude to in your question, you may also have doubts about her motive (I know I would). Is she trying to help you? Or is she following a recent mandate, using the time to exert her influence, doing her best to show off in your presence, etc.?

As you try to choose from this rather long and varied list, ask yourself: What bothers you the most? What do you complain about when you go home at night? In short, what do you really want? This last question helps you select from the various options (you can’t discuss all of the issues in one sitting).

My guess is that while it may help clarify matters if your boss defines her terms, this is a far less important issue than several others you mentioned and wouldn’t be the best place to start. The fact that she fails to ask for your input and doesn’t recognize your current skills sounds far more important and both problems may be contributing to your feeling unsupported. Clarifying her words might help a little and would certainly be easier to discuss, but isn’t likely to get you what you want.

So, think about the various issues, talk about the component parts with a friend, ask yourself what you really want, and then reduce the problem to a single sentence–forcing yourself to get at the core issue.

2. How do you start the conversation?

Choosing what to talk about is only the beginning. Now you have to talk. Before you open your mouth, keep a good thought. Don’t enter the conversation feeling angry, smug, or superior. Most of us aren’t good enough actors to hide our underlying emotions. If you hold court in your head and find your boss guilty, the verdict will come out in your tone of voice and choice of words. Your nasty conclusions will make your boss defensive and put you at risk. Make it safe for both yourself and your boss by assuming that she’s simply unaware of the problem and doing her best. Then start by asking for permission–after all, this is your boss. For example: “I’m wondering if we can take a few minutes to talk about the new feedback process.”

When you’ve got permission, start by describing the problem. Don’t start with your conclusions or feelings. Both are controversial and typically cause others to become defensive. Start with the facts. For example: “In our last discussion you pointed out a problem and then made a suggestion on how to solve it. The last two times you’ve offered suggestions, I was already doing exactly what you proposed. It left me wondering if you have an accurate view of what I do and how I do it.” Then pause and wait for your boss’s response.

Now, a lot more will follow as the conversation unfolds, but this forum doesn’t allow for a complete handling of the confrontation. For now, let’s assume that you want to start off on the right foot and to do so you have to do two things well: select the right problem and then describe it in a way that makes it safe for the other person. Do these two things well and you’ll be heading down the right path in a way that will likely lead to a healthy confrontation.

Good luck and may all your conversations be effective ones.


Crucial Conversations QA

The Boss is a Bully

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

My boss is out of control. He fabricates facts to support his personal agenda. He applies or ignores corporate policies at his whim. He makes blatant displays of favoritism–punishing some employees severely while overlooking others who do the exact same thing. He accuses employees falsely, and then creates evidence if needed to support his claims.

He has taken the Crucial Conversations class and uses it as a means of attack. He starts with “This is a crucial conversation,” and then follows with a litany of insults and accusations, omitting any attempt to make things feel safe.

Our institution has no sanctioned course of action where a supervisor can present a complaint. Several have gone to his superior and gotten nowhere. How can we use Crucial Conversations skills to better remedy a situation where honesty and truth are considered a secondary priority?


Nearly Hopeless

A Dear Nearly Hopeless,

Sounds like the crucial conversation you need to have is with yourself. The best service you could offer to yourself is to find a different job. And the best service you could offer to your organization is to hold a very candid exit interview once you’ve lined up the next job. Unfortunately, weakness at crucial conversations is not confined to direct reports. Bosses are just as inclined to avoid them at all costs.

Now, I’m making two important assumptions–but provided my assumptions are correct, the primary problem here is that your boss’s superior is AWOL from his or her job. When an employee takes the enormous risk of giving skip-level feedback (i.e., going over her boss’s head to share concerns about her boss), the manager has a special obligation to protect the employee and to respond vigorously to the concerns. Clearly that has failed here. Now, in fairness, I need to share the big assumptions I’m making. I’m assuming that:

1. You and others have made a skillful attempt to give your boss feedback about his chronic untrustworthiness.

2. You and others have been skillful in how you communicated your concerns to your boss’s boss.

If you’ve done reasonably well at both of these, then you have–in my opinion–discharged your conscience marvelously and are left only with the obligation to move yourself to a healthy work situation. I know that can be a tough decision to implement, but it should be a fairly easy one to make. As long as you stay where you are you are enabling your boss’s bad behavior by robbing him of the natural consequences of it. The natural consequence of bad leadership is the loss of good talent. But even more important, you are falling short of your obligation to place yourself in environments where you can flourish and serve best.

I wish you the best in both creating better circumstances and positively influencing your current boss through the change.

Best regards,


Crucial Accountability QA

Holding People Accountable

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Confrontations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a problem. Our business results are below expectations and upper management believes it’s because our supervisors are not holding their employees accountable for results. I have witnessed times when an employee does something not according to company policy and the employee’s immediate supervisor does nothing. We have had training courses galore in supervisory skill development, so I know the supervisors have been exposed to how to set expectations, how to observe and measure results, how to provide performance feedback, etc. It just seems that they do not want to confront the employees about performance problems because they don’t want to give the bad news.

The business unit vice president wants to start firing the supervisors. I don’t think that is the solution. I think we need to get our supervisors comfortable with confronting their employees about the performance issues.

Any ideas on how I can convince the Vice President?


Conflicted in Connecticut

A Dear Conflicted,

You asked the right question. Why is it that people who’ve been trained in a specific skill don’t use it? This just happens to be the subject of twenty-five years of our research, so bear with me as I try to answer this often-asked question.

When people don’t enact a certain behavior, it’s for one of three reasons. They don’t want to do it, they don’t know how to do it, or both. When your bosses suggest that maybe they should start firing supervisors, it sounds as if they’ve made the following diagnosis: “The supervisors simply don’t WANT to do what they should do–everyone knows it isn’t fun holding employees accountable–so maybe firing a few will add an extra incentive to those who are left behind.”

This is hardly the correct solution. It’s more an act of frustration and desperation and will likely cause a whole host of new problems. It also doesn’t model what the bosses want the supervisors to do when dealing with employees who aren’t living up to their expectations. Fire them straight out of the chute? Surely there are other methods.

Here’s what we’ve generally found to be true with reluctant supervisors. Your diagnosis is right. It’s almost always an issue of perceived ability. Supervisors don’t have confidence that what they have learned will actually work when dealing with their employees. This can stem from one of several different sources. They may have only been given general directions, but don’t know exactly what to do and say. Most accountability training is long in theory and short in genuine skills. If supervisors have been given actual skills or best practices, they may not feel as if they know how to do them as of yet. Perhaps they weren’t given enough time to practice until the language was comfortable and the method was second nature.

Beyond effectiveness, you have to deal with relevancy of the training they’ve received. Did the supervisors see what they learned as something that would actually work with their people? Much of what is taught today fails this test. Those in the training look at the examples taught and think, “My people would NEVER react like that.” If the skills are out of date or out to lunch, who can blame the learners for discounting the material and not giving it a whirl at work? It’s possible that the training the supervisors had was well intended but wasn’t skill based enough, relevant enough, or long enough to create comfort.

Another common hindrance is related to social issues. If you’re asking supervisors to now hold people accountable to standards that you used to let go, who’s going to be the first to step up? Who wants to run the risk of being seen as the “tough nut” while everyone else is letting the issue slide? Who wants to look like a naive do-gooder? So people wait for others to say something before they speak up.

If this is the case, it’s important to meet as work groups, talk about the new expectations, explain the need for the new standard, and then hold people to it as a group. If you haven’t held these sessions, supervisors are going to stay mum. Nobody wants to look erratic.

What if the standard you’re asking people to keep is something you’ve asked for before, maybe even for years, but never really held people accountable to keep? You have, in effect, cried wolf, and now you expect people to believe you when the real wolf is at the door. You’ll have to make this sad truth part of your explanation to teams as you talk about the new/old standard. People are smart. They know you’ve been lax and that they’ve gotten away with poor performance. It’s part of today’s real standard, and you have to address this problem as well.

Additionally, a number of motivational factors could be influencing the supervisors’ behavior–ranging from the formal reward system to the informal actions of the big boss.

So, what’s a person to do in the face of these possibilities? You’ve got to get to all of the underlying causes. Expand your search for causes beyond simply “the supervisors don’t want to do what they’ve been told to do.” Think about what may be making it difficult for them to hold others accountable–what barriers could be removed? What motivation and ability components are coming into play here? There are bound to be several.

In any case, stick to your convictions. Conduct a quick diagnosis and then share with the bosses the various elements that are leading to the supervisors’ reluctance. Armed with a more complete picture as well as a more complex solution, they won’t feel compelled to fire people who are caught in a web of problems that are keeping them form doing what you want.

Good luck!