Crucial Conversations QA

Increasing Safety after a Promotion

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’ve entered that magical world of senior management, but now I feel I know less than I did when I was a middle manager. I have to dig harder for the truth, and work harder to prove it is still “safe” to talk with me. Two months ago a lot was shared with me–now that isn’t the case, and even my staff members, who were once my peers, share less.

How do I demonstrate “it’s still me”?

Outside Looking In

Dear OLI,

You’ve described a situation that lots of people have experienced–that is, when you have power, how can you help others honestly share what’s on their minds? This situation can arise when you move to senior management, when you are the person on your team with the most experience or the most technical knowledge, when you are the new manager, or when you are the parent. All of these require some insight and skill to help others feel “safe” talking with you.

Here are a few tips we’ve learned as we’ve studied people who are very effective at helping others feel safe.

1. Remember the past. The situation you’re facing might have been created by the other person’s past experiences–with you or with someone else. I recall just such an experience. We were doing interviews in an organization that was, to be delicate, struggling. People were tight-lipped, nervous, and cautious. Occasionally someone would share the example of a manager who yelled at employees–Murphy. Another would tell a story of how employees were belittled by a boss–Murphy. Still another got emotional about how some supervisor had limited an employee’s career–Murphy. Later that afternoon, we asked one of the new executives if we could interview Murphy. We couldn’t. Murphy had retired seven years earlier. But his ghost, his memory, still stalked the halls of this organization. Many of the new managers, newly promoted managers, and even old managers who had never mistreated an employee were treated like they were Murphy–or at least next of kin. Managers and supervisors had to deal with this history when they asked others for input.

Sometimes we are living with a past that we personally created. I remember a man sharing with a group as he was going through Crucial Conversations training, “I’ve got it. Finally. My kids are nervous around me. Why? For 99.9 percent of the time, I’m Dr. Jekyll, and only .01 percent do I lose my temper and become Mr. Hyde. But my children are always looking for Mr. Hyde.”

When you have to deal with situations clouded by the past, remember to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Ask, “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act nervous or unsafe?” Are there situational or historical factors that are influencing him or her?

2. Share your intentions. We learned from dialogue masters to clarify issues by Contrasting. A Contrasting statement clarifies what you don’t intend and what you do intend. This helps the other person understand your good intentions and dispels worries about selfish or harmful motives. Often the “don’t” part is the most important. For example, when you’re beginning a talk with a person who is hesitant to share, say something like, “I’d like to talk about this topic candidly. I wonder if there has been some hesitancy on your part because I’m now in senior management. I don’t want to let my new position get in the way of important communication that needs to be shared. My intention is to be a good listener so that I can hear the issues that affect you and the job. What do you think?” It may take a time or two–or three. The main issue here is to deal with mutual purpose–what do both of you want?–rather that dealing first with the content of any particular issue.

3. Be consistent. If you want to get input from people who are hesitant or feel unsafe, you have to be consistent. After you share your intentions and try to understand others’ points of view, keep up the process of engaging them in dialogue. Ask, listen, and respond. Sometimes the response will be “Great idea, let’s do that.” Sometimes it will be, “Interesting, let’s discuss what that means to our budget or to customers.” Once in a while, it will be, “Let me repeat what I heard. Is that right? I see that differently. Can we compare our points of view?” The main point is this: To have people believe that you are really interested in hearing their thoughts, you have to consistently make it safe for them to share over time. Then come trust and credibility.

Safety is not easy sometimes. But dealing with it is essential.

May you have terrific results from your efforts!


Crucial Accountability QA

Legal Dilemma

Joseph Grenny

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


Crucial Confrontations

QDear Crucial Skills,

I am a corporate lawyer. I have been trying to tell our VP of Legal Affairs that I believe the company is at serious risk for litigation on an issue. Each time I do she cuts me off without listening and argues that we’re fine. I see major holes in her counterarguments and don’t believe they would stand up in court. This particular issue is a specific area of expertise of mine. The VP–while very smart–has no real background in this particular area. Mainly I just want her to listen to and consider my points. If after listening she still thinks she is right, I am fine with her making the final judgment.

This is especially risky because she has a short fuse and both yells at and fires people who disagree with her. How do I get her to listen on this important issue that I’ve already unsuccessfully approached her on several times?


Gag Order

A Dear Gag Order,

It’s interesting to me how often our answers are embedded in our questions–particularly when it comes to crucial conversations. Other people (like me) look smarter than they deserve when they do little more than play back what you just told them. I believe that may be the case with your question. You ask the question, “How do I get her to listen to us on this important issue that I’ve already unsuccessfully approached her on several times?” My first piece of advice is to have a conversation with her about precisely that. Don’t talk to her about this issue. Talk to her about your inability to talk to her about the issue.

If you ever find yourself having the same conversation twice, odds are you’re having the wrong conversation. If your real concern is how the conversation is going, then that’s what you should be talking about. Now, with that said, it’s important to ensure that she feels safe when you do talk. Otherwise she’ll likely attribute bad motive to you (you’re doing this because you’re arrogant, or gunning for her job, or whatever) and then she’ll feel totally justified in yelling at you or firing you. Not a good outcome. In the critical first 30 seconds–what we call the “Hazardous Half Minute”–of this crucial conversation, you must do three things:

1. Make it safe. Help her know that you respect her and that you care about her best interests.

2. Describe the gap. Describe factually what has happened compared to what you expect to have happen. Be sure to avoid hot, judgmental, emotional words that would damage safety.

3. Make it motivating. Help her understand the natural consequences of her not engaging with you on this topic–obviously emphasizing consequences she’ll care about.

Here is a possible script just for illustration. Your choice of actual words will best be informed by your best guess at what makes her feel unsafe when others challenge her and what consequences motivate her the most.

“Ms. Finch (for fun let’s pretend she’s Atticus’ daughter), I have a concern I’d like to discuss if that’s okay. I want you to know my whole reason for raising it is to be sure I’m doing the job I was hired for, and to be loyal to you in every best sense of the word. Can I take a minute to share my concern? (Make it safe–clarify your intentions and respect). Here’s the concern: On three occasions I’ve attempted to describe some legal risks I see on issue X. On each occasion you’ve disagreed so quickly that I have not been able to do justice to my argument (Describe the gap). Here’s my concern–I don’t think you want me to check my brain at the door. And yet that’s what I’ve felt tempted to do. I’m also absolutely sure that you care a great deal about this company–and hope you see me having the same value. I know you wouldn’t lay low if you saw a big risk–and I suspect you’d see me as delinquent if I did the same (Make it motivating–give her a reason to listen to you and describe motivating natural consequences of not listening). May I have five minutes to make my argument? After that, I’d like to have you shoot holes in it–and give me permission to do the same with your points if that’s okay?”

Now–I don’t know that this is the right script. But so long as your VP has some good motives somewhere inside her, I think I’ve accurately described your objective. In the first 30 seconds, you must Make It Safe, Describe the Gap, and Make It Motivating for her to listen to you. Once you get started–particularly if she’s an impatient person and begins to cut you off again–you’ll need to hold her to the agreement she just made. Very politely remind her of her commitment to your five minute speech–and continue on. Then be sure to be true to your commitment to listen to her counterarguments and support her final decision.

I especially loved your question because your attitude is 100 percent right. Organizations are not democracies. We don’t all get to vote about the final decisions. But we do have an obligation to speak up when we have important meaning to contribute. You clearly do–and I wish you the best in discharging your responsibilities!

Warm regards,


Crucial Conversations QA

Micromanaging Revisited

Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I read with interest the Q&A posted 9/8 (“Being Micromanaged”) and handled by Joseph Grenny.

I’d like to reverse the scenario and ask what should the manager who believes that his/her direct report is “wanting to have country club freedom and no accountability” do? As a manager, I resist micromanaging at all costs; it’s not the way I want to be managed and it’s not the way I want to manage. However, I may well be a manager who can be taken advantage of, and that doesn’t feel particularly good. I’m in higher education where there is high value placed on collegiality. This translates most often into a great deal of autonomy at the expense of accountability. With one employee I recently approached this crucial conversation perhaps too delicately. How can managers find the proper balance with employees?

Thank you,

Dr. Delicate

A Dear Dr. Delicate:

As I respond to your question, I want to extend it to other situations. I don’t think people want to micromanage or be micromanaged anywhere. Micromanagement is not desirable even in tense environments such as airport towers, nuclear power plants, or emergency rooms. It’s certainly not what people want at home with partners or with children. “Take out the garbage. Did you put in a new liner? Did you put the lid on the garbage can? Did you close the garage door?” All of this sounds like nagging. It certainly minimizes autonomy and initiative. And, as you noted, it minimized collegiality and other positive forms of relationships.

On the other hand, particularly in high-risk situations or where there is a track record of performance problems, managers or leaders don’t want to say, “I don’t want to micromanage, so I’ll just trust you to perform and get back to me when you find it convenient.”

So what can be done to hold people accountable without micromanaging? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Excellent performance begins with clear expectations. As you set expectations with individuals or groups, make sure you not only include what the desired results are, but also get agreement about how you will talk about issues or problems that come up. Talk about the process of accountability and about how you define management vs. micromanagement–from both sides.

It could sound something like this: “We’ve agreed that the proposal will be submitted for review to me by next Tuesday at noon. Can we talk for a few minutes about what each of us should do if we run into problems or barriers?” In this discussion, you can talk about what the other person will do to keep you informed in advance if there is the possibility of a delay, or if he or she needs additional input, or whatever. Also, you can get agreement about how you’ll check in with the person. The outcome of this conversation is that both of you should feel comfortable with and clear about the outcomes and the process you’ll use to ensure accountability. Ask specific questions such as: “Do you feel okay about the process?” and “Are you comfortable with our plan concerning accountability?” These questions give you opportunities to make sure that your intention is to get results and not to micromanage. To emphasize this point, you need agreements about how you hold others accountable. What is your comfort level about frequency and specificity? What is the other person’s comfort level? The balance comes from the dialogue you have up front.

2. Look at your story. Too often people tell themselves that if they confront someone, the person will see it as micromanaging. This can be a “Sucker’s Choice”: a choice where we see only two options–both of them bad. (e.g., “If I confront people, they’ll see it as being ‘on their case’; or I can not confront them and let the results suffer.”) In reality, there is often a third, better alternative: You can confront the issue of accountability AND not micromanage. So you mentally push yourself to find the AND. “How can I confront this issue so the results are achieved AND avoid having the other person think I’m micromanaging? In fact, how can I deal with performance issues AND strengthen our relationship?” Such questions, of course, help you to focus on what you really want for you, for the other person, and for the relationship. You don’t have to choose between performance and relationship…you can get both.

3. Describe the gap. If you need to discuss a performance issue, you can create the safety needed for a helpful discussion by describing the gap. Describe what you agreed on and then what you observed and how it differed from what you expected. The gap between these two is what you are going to talk about. If you can begin well, the rest is often easy. Make sure you start with facts, not emotions or conclusions. You begin with an observation, not an accusation. When you can do this well, you send a message that says, “I’ve noticed this and I’m interested in learning what happened–I have not pre-judged you or the issue.” Also, when you have an agreement upfront about how accountability discussions will be held, there are no surprises. With no surprises and lots of safety, holding talks about performance is not seen as micromanaging.

I hope these three points help. I also hope that you and others can see how they can be applied at a college, in manufacturing, other businesses, and at home.

Best wishes,